1940s >> 1949 >> no-537-may-1949

Dublin Letter

It is some weeks now since the world heard the result of the General Election in Northern Ireland—though how much the world really cared about that election result, we, of course, can’t say. The election issue, however, was said to be a clear one. “King or Republic?”—that is, maintenance of the constitutional status quo or incorporation in an all-Ireland Republic. For the King and continued union with Gt. Britain, were the ”Ulster Unionists” (Tories); for the Republic, the Nationalists. Uncomfortably straddling the constitutional fence, swaying, now this side, now that, were the Northern Ireland Labour party, and a few “Independents.” Though the result was never in any doubt—the return to power of the Tories—the utter debacle of the Labour party came about as a complete surprise to most people. Not one of their nine candidates were elected, including three fighting to retain their seats in Belfast; all told, the Labour party lost about 35,000 votes. And McCullough, the one Communist party candidate, only got 688 votes as compared with his 5,802 in 1945—in the same constituency, and against the same opponent. Lord Glentoran, one of the foremost Tory leaders.


To Socialists, the ups and downs of the Tory and Nationalist votes are unimpressive by comparison with the disintegration of the “Leftist and Progressive” ones; for these went, overwhelmingly, to the Tory party. Apologists have said that the supporters of the Labour party and the “Leftist” groups were stampeded. into voting Tory because of the jingoism and sabre-rattling of the Orange (Freemason) Lodges and the alleged threat to their Protestantism, etc., of absorption in a Papist-dominated all-Ireland Republic. Be that as it may, what volumes does it not speak for the Socialist attitude on reformism in general and, to Socialists in Ireland, on the “Partition question” in particular? That one-time adherents of the Labour party can be persuaded that a new national flag is a greater threat to their interests than the continuation of the capitalist economic system constitutes, indeed, a pitiful and sad commentary on the efficacy and worthwhileness of that tragically mis-named party, the Labour Party. But then, what are we to say of the lamentable decline of the alleged “revolutionary” vote, the Communist Party one ? Of McCullough’s [3.9] per cent. depleted vote, can we justifiably attribute it to the same cause? We think so, for no other fits the facts.


So, in this respect, the Northern Ireland elections have afforded one more demonstration of the uselessness of reformist votes as a means of effecting any real change in the worker’s position vis-a-vis the capitalist. Such votes are as easily lost in the next election as they are won in this. Though Hitler won quite a proportion of the Communist and Social Democrat parties’ votes, to a large extent by outdoing their promises of “social betterment,” any analogy between that phase of German history and the recent Tory victory in Northern Ireland would be not only misleading but involve the paying of false compliments to the Labour and “Leftist” parties. For the truth is that Sir Basil Brooke (Tory leader) and his party were under no great pressure to defend existing social and economic conditions in Northern Ireland. When, now and then, they did do so, it was only by way of superficial comparison with Eire, saying: “Look how worse off you’d be in an Irish Republic!” But that all they had to do, for the most part, was to wave the Orange flag and beat the Orange drum, is due to the pusillanimity of the Labour party and others, and their inability, because of their capitalist-reformist base, to point the way out to the Northern Ireland workers.


That the workers there, no less than their fellows down here in Eire, and elsewhere under capitalism, are “getting it in the neck ” all of the time, is ably borne out by an examination of the available social and economic statistics. With a population of 1,330,000, Northern Ireland has, at present, 37,000 men and women on the Unemployment Register. And this unemployment figure is not only proportionately higher than Britain’s—it was two-and-a-half times the British rate in 1947—but higher even than Eire’s, with 83,766 unemployed. This very large and ugly social blot on Northern Ireland is not of recent occurrence either. Except for the war periods, unemployment has always hovered round the 20,000 mark, and in more recent years, between 25,000 and 35,000. As a matter of fact, in March, 1947, it actually reached the 45,000 figure.


Working class housing and health conditions are, in general, no better than they are here in Eire—and that comparison is, indeed, an odious one. The number of houses officially estimated as unfit for habitation in Northern Ireland is 27,000. In Belfast itself (the Northern Ireland capital), where there were over 17,000 applications for houses by January, 1948, the Corporation and Housing Trust had between them built only 322! A survey recently undertaken by the Northern Ireland Council of Social Service (a semi-official body) revealed appalling conditions existing in this area of the “King’s Dominions.” Those conditions are all too graphically detailed in the work embodying the Council’s findings, “Rural Life in Northern Ireland ” (Oxford University Press, 1947).


For instance, taking the Beveridge Report subsistence benefit (and that low enough by any standards) as “ the poverty line,” the Council found that in County Fermanagh, twelve labourers’ households out of twenty-nine fell below this line, as well as nineteen pensioners’ households out of twenty-nine. And in Co. Down, likewise; while in Nth. Antrim, fifty per cent. of the farm labourers exist below this “minimum required to maintain health.” As to housing; not a single labourer’s cottage has been built by any Rural Council in Co. Fermanagh since Northern Ireland became a separate State (1921)! Much the same story is told of the other five counties. Even in Nth. Down, which is claimed to be the “most advanced” area because of its proximity to Belfast, only six per cent. of the houses have a W.C.! Also—and not far from Stormont either, where the “King’s men” legislate in the interests of the linen, brewing and shipbuilding industrialists and big farmers, and rave about the ‘‘prosperity of Ulster and the poverty of Eire”—in Belfast, according to the Council, the main causes of distress in that city were tuberculosis and the housing shortage.


But enough has been said already to show that there are working-class problems in Northern Ireland apart from the capitalist constitutional ones. The solution of these problems, because they are specifically working-class ones, is not to be found in formulae concerned with national boundaries. Neither Statute of Westminster nor Republican Declaration can offer a solution of them. The division which gave birth to these problems—the division of the wealth of the few and the poverty of the many—is, needless to say, conveniently ignored by all of the current publicity devoted to that sorrowing tale, “Divided Ireland.” Even a King and a Republic (and that’s not a piece of Irishry, for through the External Relations Act that was the situation in Eire from 1937 to 1949) holds no hope of the ending of that division. And that Partition is one which will remain until a majority of the workers decide to end the capitalist system—complete with all its Republican and Monarchical paraphernalia—and establish Socialism.

Chris Walsh


(Dublin Socialist Group).