For the past twenty-six years there has been an armed conflict in Northern Ireland which the media, both local and foreign, has offered to the public as a religious war between Catholics and Protestants. It is not only the media. The most recent contribution to this fallacy comes from Dr Brian Walker, the Director of Irish Studies at Queens University, Belfast. In his book Dancing to History’s Tune, Dr Walker sets out to refute the view that there has been continuous religious conflict in Ireland since the seventeenth century. Correctly, he identifies the rise of Irish nationalism during the latter part of the last century as the source of the present conflict. Yet, while allowing a place to political and economic considerations in the events that have led to the current troubles, he affirms that the primary cause was religious.
The prevailing view of the troubles simply tells us that Catholics and Protestants lined up on opposite sides of the political conflict in Ireland. It does not tell us why a political conflict existed or why it involved Catholics and Protestants on opposite sides. After all, how could the complex theological arguments of Catholicism and the various strands of Protestantism—which few of the adherents of either religion understand—be the motivation for people slaughtering one another?
The conflict in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants was essentially about land. In its ‘religious’ form it started in the early seventeenth century when the government of England—in an effort to quell the rebellious Gaelic Irish in the Northeast of the country—defeated the northern Gaels and confiscated their lands in the interests of government-sponsored adventurers who colonised the Ulster province with Scottish and English tenants. Inevitably, conflict arose between the dispossessed and the incoming ‘planters’. The fact that the latter were largely protestant and the former catholic may have made for practical and historical identification but the real basis of conflict was about land, even if the religious identities of the contending parties was to be exploited later by succeeding political and economic interests.
The plantation of the Irish province of Ulster completed the English conquest of Ireland and helped shape its history in the following years. In particular, the Ulster plantation created conditions which would, towards the end of the nineteenth century, result in a conflict of interest between a developed capitalism in Ulster and an emerging but still backward capitalism in the rest of the country.
The material conditions for the development of capitalism in Ulster were established by the planter farmers in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Literacy and skills such as weaving were prevalent among a group that have come to be known as the Ulster-Scots. They succeeded in establishing practices which gave them favourable title to their land. This latter became established by ‘custom’, rather than law, but it was widely acknowledged by landlords and it allowed tenants a security of tenure which was denied to the serf-like Irish peasantry throughout the rest of the country.
Thus, not until the early days of the present century some two hundred years later did the small farmers in the south finally achieve this security of a lease on their holdings. The last of three Land Acts allowed them holdings to convey these holdings for cash or kind, and fixed terms of rental. As opposed to the situation in the north of the country, the development in land occupancy in the south effectively created a survival economy which denied the tenant farmer the benefits which his northern counterpart derived from improvements to his holding and from his increased productivity.
In the north, as the economic condition of the tenant farmers improved, they enjoyed a surplus which represented purchasing power. Given the existence of this purchasing power—which the ‘Ulster Custom’, as it came to be known, had made possible—the material conditions for the development of a local market existed as early as the middle of the eighteenth century. This domestic market later expanded apace with industrial development in Britain.
Initially, towards the end of the eighteenth century, elements of the emergent northern protestant capitalist class, frustrated by perceived restrictions on Irish trade, conspired in a rebellion against Scottish rule in Ireland and, ironically, in the light of succeeding events, established both the concept of republicanism and the idea of armed struggle in Ireland.
Subsequently, capital transfer and the growth of (British) Empire Preference were to soothe the political aspirations of northern capitalism. Their aspiration and its means of achievement—armed force—were however, inherited by a fledgling southern, and largely Catholic, capitalist class when, by the end of the last century, it revolted against what it saw as British restrictions on the development of its industrial development.
The political instrument of this nascent southern capitalism was at first, for a short time, a Home Government Association initially organised by a conservative barrister called Isaac Butt. Butt was primarily concerned with the ‘infidelity and socialism’ which he saw as gaining ground in England and the effects of this on the economic interests of Irish landlords and capitalists. The Home Government Association evolved, through a Home Rule League into an effective Irish Parliamentary Party led by Charles Stewart Parnell which, in 1885, secured 86 seats in the London Parliament.
During the 1885 election campaign, Parnell pointed out the raison d’etre of the Irish Parliamentary Party in a speech at Arklow (Co. Waterford):
Without a Parliament with full powers for Ireland we can do nothing for her in terms of reviving her industries. Without a freely elected national assembly, with the power to control all the affairs of Ireland and with power to protect her struggling industries… it is impossible to revive our native industries. We are met face-to-face with this fact, that we find ourselves in the commencement of our industry confronted by the competition of England, with her perfect system of manufacture, with her trained population and her vast possession of capital and wealth, and we know well that English traders are so unscrupulous that they will compete against and trample underfoot any struggling Irish industry in order that they may thereby earn more for their own industries.
When corruption and scandal sent the Irish Parliamentary Party into terminal decline, the Irish capitalist class found a more dynamic political instrument in Sinn Fein. This organisation was founded by Arthur Griffith, a noted enemy of organised labour, and the objective set out by Griffith at its inaugural convention in November 1905, and later absorbed into Sinn Fein policy, clearly demonstrates its affinity with the political and economic aspirations of its predecessor, the Irish Parliamentary Party; thus:
Protection does not mean the exclusion of foreign competition—it means rendering the native manufacturer equal to meeting foreign competition… If an Irish manufacturer cannot produce an article as cheaply as an English or other foreigner, only because his foreign competitor has larger resources at his disposal, then it is the first duty of the Irish nation to accord protection to that Irish manufacturer. (Sinn Fein Policy, 1907 Edition, p15)
The demand for trade protection in the form of tariff barriers and import quotas by the political spokespersons of southern capitalism was received with serious concern by the large industrial capitalists of Ulster. When the President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, J. Milne Barbour, a wealthy northern industrialist, gave evidence to a House of Commons Committee on Irish Finance, in July 1911, he addressed the issue. Asked if he would
prefer a type of [fiscal] arrangement which would not give control of Customs to an Irish Parliament?
he answered “Yes, certainly.” Asked if he attached much weight to the point, he said:
I do. I think that any attempt to set up an independent customs in such a way as to enable the Irish Parliament to create a tariff between Ireland and the United Kingdom would be a very dangerous thing. (Minutes of Evidence, Committee on Irish Finance. Cmnd. 6799)
In 1912 the political spokespersons for northern capitalism organised a massive response to the threat of Irish Home Rule including the establishment of an illegal army, the Ulster Volunteer Force, pledged to resist in arms any attempt by the British government to impose Home Rule on Ulster. In 1916 Sinn Fein became associated with a futile attempt at rebellion which resulted from a conspiracy organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret organisation founded in America and funded largely by Irish-Americans. Sinn Fein, having been infiltrated by members of the IRB was generally credited—or blamed—for the armed rising which was seriously handicapped by the blundering that resulted from the underhand methods of the IRB conspirators. Henceforth, Sinn Fein was to become the political arm of what emerged as the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
The fact that the majority population in Ulster was protestant and the majority in the south catholic, provided a useful basis for the lies, half-truths and deliberate fictions that were to muster the opposing forces of Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism. It laid the foundations for the bloody civil war that has lasted until the present.
By 1922 the British government had resolved the matter in the way it was subsequently to resolve similar problems throughout the British Empire. Having created division in its conquered territories as a defensive bulwark, when it was finally obliged to withdraw it ‘solved’ the problem it had created by partitioning the territory it was vacating. However, the seeds of future instability were present. While the majority population of the north were Protestant and loyal subjects of the United Kingdom, a third were Catholic and most of these wanted a united Ireland and were implacably opposed to the new state of Northern Ireland.
Time, and some generosity from the Unionist government may have taken the heat out of nationalist disaffection. However, following the establishment of the northern state world capitalism entered the Great Depression and in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, this was reflected in increased poverty and unemployment. Those Protestants who had vigorously supported the government party had little visible evidence of their interests being served; some straws in the wind of disaffection became evident among the protestant section of the working class and the Unionist government, rather than woo its rebellious catholic nationalists, encouraged anti-catholic discrimination as a means of holding on to the consent of its working class protestant supporters.
Following World War Two and the enactment of social reform legislation in Britain, which included Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, nationalist opposition softened and, with the signing of an Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement in 1966, relations between the north and the south improved somewhat. This improvement was reflected in two unprecedented meetings between the chief ministers of both states and in the subsequent acceptance by catholic politicians of the role of the official opposition in the northern parliament.
The initial cause of conflict, the disparity between the needs of the capitalist class in the south and its northern class brethren, had been effectively eroded. Much of the north’s traditional industries had become outmoded and were in rapid decline while the south had achieved some measure of success in attracting foreign capital investment.
Things seemed hopeful: on the 26th February 1962 the then insignificant IRA finally acknowledged, after a futile border campaign, that their policy of armed struggle lacked the support of the catholic nationalists. They announced that they were taking the gun out of Irish politics and would, henceforth, pursue non-violent forms of struggle on social issues.
Yet, while the nationalists were resigned to the continuance of the northern state, they were growing increasingly impatient at the lack of political and social reform which they thought they had purchased with the new mood of political co-operation. Impatience finally manifested itself in the formation of a Civil Rights Association which would use the strategies of its American counterpart—marches, rallies and mass demonstrations—to marshal opinion for change. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), though largely supported by catholic nationalists, had a respectable number of protestant supporters most of whom were from the political Left where support for the movement was solid. NICRA’s demands seemed simple and straightforward: one person, one vote; one person, one job and an end to discrimination in the allocation of public housing.
Ian Paisley and his hard-line Unionist supporters raised the spectre of the IRA claiming that it was the prime mover in the Civil Rights movement. Undoubtedly the IRA/Sinn Fein nexus did play a role in the NICRA, their’s may even have been the tail that wagged the dog, but if this was their direct strategy it was a departure from armed action—indeed, it would have seemed that opponents of the IRA/Sinn Fein would ordinarily have welcomed this move into democratic politics.
Paisley and his followers staged counter-demonstrations which became a source of civil disturbance but the government were afraid to act decisively against them in case such action undermined its popular support among the more extreme elements of the protestant population. The NICRA were caught in a pincer movement between this extreme protestant element led by Paisley and a frightened government that used the paramilitary police force as a political cosh. It has to be said however, that the demands for jobs and houses made by the NICRA—which represented the Left’s fallacious thinking regarding what can be achieved by politicians within capitalism—left the government with limited policy options.
In October 1968 the Unionist government’s paramilitary police attacked a banned Civil Rights march in Derry and television pictures of the attack were flashed around the world—much to the embarrassment of the British Labour government which bore ultimate responsibility for the behaviour of the local administration. When explosions caused considerable destruction at four of the province’s reservoirs, the police issued a statement claiming it was the work of the IRA. At the time it seemed to justify the fears of moderate Protestants but a fortuitous event delivered a would-be bomber into the reluctant hands of the police and it emerged that the earlier explosions were the work of protestant extremists.
For the few socialists in the province, the atmosphere of tangible hatred and the absolute ‘ghettoisation’ of large sections of our fellow workers was a grave disappointment. Earlier we had judged it safe to carry out socialist agaitation and even electoral work in some of the more entrenched protestant and catholic areas with promising results. Now, only the politics of bigotry and hatred were acceptable.
The event that lit the touch paper of catholic revolt occurred in August 1969. Again it was Derry where a protestant sectarian march was attacked by catholic youths from the Bogside. The police beat the attackers back into the ghetto but, unlike previous occasions, the Bogsiders had planned for the anticipated incursion. The ‘Battle of the Bogside’ followed. Despite using all its available force, including CS gas, the exhausted police were unable to gain entry to the Bogside. In an effort to relieve the Bogsiders, Catholics in west Belfast attacked the local police station and the police replied with a heavy concentration of gunfire, including the use of a heavy field machine-gun.
It was easy for Protestants in the nearby Shankhill to believe that they were faced with a doomsday situation. Undeterred by a passive police presence, and inflamed by a bigoted and reckless leadership, the mob set about torching catholic homes.
By the following morning, hundreds of catholic homes had been burnt out, four people were dead and there were many injured. Homeless refugees tramped through the debris in search of sanctuary. British troops had been brought in the previous day and placed between the police and the Bogsiders in Derry; now they appeared on the streets of Belfast.
These events precipitated a split in the IRA. The Dublin leadership had refused to provide arms for the defence of the Catholics on the ground that the IRA existed to fight British occupation rather than for the killing of protestant Irish. The northern section of the IRA, with little justification, had always nurtured the notion that it represented some sort of defence for the Catholics; now events in the north strengthened the hand of those who wanted the IRA to take up the role of catholic defenders. The split which had been smouldering for some time finally resulted in the birth of the Provisional IRA and a regressive step into a bloody and divisive future.
The rest is the story of 26 years of intensified hatred and division; 26 years of killing and maiming, of ruined lives and long terms of imprisonment and, almost always, the victims are from the most deprived section of the working class.
In 1994 the IRA declared a cease-fire due their stated belief that the British and Irish governments had undertaken to inaugurate peace talks between all the conflicting parties. Currently it costs the British government some £3.5 billion to maintain control of an area in which it now confesses to have no political, economic or strategic interest.
Most pundits see Britain as being anxious to establish a sufficient measure of political stability in Northern Ireland to allow for eventual withdrawal without bringing the violence home to the extensive Irish expatriate populations in the principal British cities.
Even the search for peace, however, is proving elusive. A suspicion of British intentions and an exaggerated view of the political and economic ability of the southern Irish government to replace Britain’s role in Northern Ireland has left the Unionists divided. The more moderate traditional Ulster Unionist Party have been forced into extremism by the fear of losing out to the more hard-line followers of Ian Paisley.
Meanwhile, the Provisional`s struggle is flawed by the political fact that their violence has succeeded only in embittering the protestant population of Northern Ireland and alienating them further from the concept of Irish unity. It is flawed, too, by the stark economic reality that the overwhelming majority of the people in the south (some surveys put the figure as high as 86 per cent) are unable and unwilling to inherit Britain’s substantial financial subvention to the Northern Ireland economy.
This reality, together with the realisation that their guerrilla struggle is stalemated may have finally percolated into the heads of the Provisional leadership. If so, the IRA cease-fire was their acknowledgement of their willingness to discuss the possibility of finding an accommodation with the Unionists. If not, it has been another audacious example of the cynicism and political skulldugery for which Sinn Fein/IRA have been notorious. Whatever, Unionist fear of the IRA and suspicion of the British government’s intentions, together with a competitive internecine struggle between the two main strands of Unionism, has led to the British government imposing pre-conditions on the IRA/Sinn Fein. These would ensure that Unionists would take part in peace talks while forcing the IRA/Sinn Fein to exclude themselves from the negotiations.
Today, the main catholic and protestant parties (the Unionist parties and the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party), none of whom have been direct participants in the violence, are engaged in peace negotiations sponsored by the British and Irish governments while the political representatives of the IRA—a primary source of violence—are excluded.
As we write, the Provisionals have called off their cease-fire and have resumed their terrorist campaign firstly on the British mainland, with a series of bombs in London and Manchester, and now in the province itself. This represents an intensification of the Provisional demand for a seat at the peace talks but, as with much of what the Provisionals do, the action simply provides an excuse for the Unionists to demand their exclusion from such talks.
Socialists would welcome any compromise that ended a painful and meaningless conflict whose victims are almost exclusively members of the working class. The problems that attend on working class life, in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, are poverty (aggravated by unemployment), insecurity, alienation, slave-status ‘education’ and acceptance of these conditions as being the best that society can offer. None of these inter-related realities of working class life are addressed by the contending forces in the Irish conflict which should render that conflict, and all other nationalistic, ‘cultural’ and religious struggles irrelevant as far as our class is concerned.
The concept of nationality, the idea that an area dominated by a privileged class which thrives on the enforced poverty of that area’s productive class, should grant to the latter the right to live there providing its members accept their wage-slave status and endorse the right of the privileged to live on their backs is offensive to any intelligent working man or woman.
Those who promote such nonsense are the real enemies of our class and there will be no lasting peace in Ireland until the workers refuse to line up behind one or the other brand of nationalism there.