1960s >> 1969 >> no-773-january-1969

Equal Rights for All?

Demonstrations, counter-marches, official bans, theological hooliganism, brutality, Ministerial stupidity . , . such is the Northern Ireland scene as the crisis worsens and the old bigotries re-appear shaped in new viciousness.

While the situation offers little in the way of political dividends to official Unionism or Nationalism it creates a golden opportunity for many of the lesser political groupings to achieve their moment in the headlines or on the TV screens, adding their special flavour of support or opposition to the government’s policies.

It is too easy to achieve a following in the present crisis. In the heat of battle immediate and fickle political alliances may be achieved but, in the long run, such a struggle allows for few real conversions and when the violence recedes the real casualties will be the working class. Theirs will be the cracked heads, the prison sentences and, especially, will it be the working class who will remain splintered and fraught with bitterness that can only help to maintain the very system that creates the abuse of what has become popularly known as “civil rights”.

As to the actual issues involved, only the most bigoted could claim that there are no abuses of political democracy in Northern Ireland. These abuses—and we recognise that when applied to some of the laws and many of the practices in the Province the term “abuses” is an understatement!—have been adequately covered by opponents of the government and require no elaboration here.

In the main, the government is accused of following a path of religious discrimination in the matter of homes, jobs and local government franchise. The Civil Rights movement demands equality for all in these matters.

While it is true that in some areas religious discrimination is practised, it should also be added that it is simply as a device for the maintenance and covering-up of the real evil, class discrimination. To suggest otherwise is to imply that Protestant members of the working class are the beneficiaries of discrimination and that all sections of the Roman Catholic population are discriminated against. But Catholic members of the capitalist class are not needful of jobs, nor are their names to be found on local authority housing lists. They, with their Protestant class-brethren, enjoy the full benefits of their economically privileged position including the right of multiple property votes.

On the other hand, Protestant members of the working class endure the problems of their class like poverty, insecurity, slums and unemployment. The fact that some politicians promote their own political interests by pushing the interests of a Protestant instead of a Catholic for a “working class” dwelling may ease somewhat the immediate position of the Protestant worker, but it is only a drop in the bucket as far as solving the housing problem of Protestant workers is concerned. They face, with their Roman Catholic counterparts, the full fury of class discrimination in housing as in other matters.

Obviously when the Civil Rights organisation speaks of “equal rights for all’ they are assessing the relative needs of individual Protestant and Catholic members of the working class. Doubtless their quotable cases are accurate enough, but the pitiful needs of all must make any order of priority wholly odious. Again, does their claim for an end to discrimination mean that members of the working class should have the same rights and privileges as members of the capitalist class? Unfortunately, it does not, for the Civil Rights movement, like all other organisations that campaign against some evil feature of capitalism fails to understand the real nature of the problem. They will militate against capitalism’s bombs, its slums, its rents, its wages, its religious or ‘racial’ prejudices; they will share common ground on some of the issues and dispute most of the others but they are ignorant of the fact that all these problems stem from a single cause, capitalism, and will only disappear with that system.

The latter-day history of Ireland’s politico-religious difficulties relate directly to the conflict of economic interest between the North’s well-entrenched capitalist class whose economic needs were best served by union with Britain and their fledgling class counterparts in the South whose economic interests could best be served by protection from British capitalism in a separate state. These are the people whose separate economic interests were served in the slogans “A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People” and “Long Live the Irish Republic”. Theirs were the interests served by their respective political hacks, sincere and otherwise, who made “principles” out of economic expediency and weapons out of bigotry and hatred.

The fledgling capitalists of the South who bleated through Sinn Fein’s policy statements about “Irish manufacturers being squeezed out by their more powerful English competitors” have succeeded in building their industries behind the tariff walls and import quotas of a separate state. Like their Northern Ireland counterparts they now stand on the threshold of big-league Common Market capitalism. Seldom now—and then, embarrassedly—do they hear the ghosts of yesterday’s unwitting martyrs to their cause, but the seeds of hatred arid bigotry on which their respective causes thrived remain within the working class in Northern Ireland, thwarting the growth of what passes for democracy in capitalist society.

Capitalism is discrimination both political and economic. Even when its full range of “civil rights” have been achieved by the working class its problems remain—each finding its victims mainly among the working class. Indeed those sincere and idealistic people who carry on the struggle for “civil rights” do a disservice to freedom when they canalise the discontent of the working class into the safe stream of political reformism and assert, if only by implication, that working class problems will be either solved or basically eased by this or that reform.

Is the life of the Loyal Orange Protestant, employed and estate-dwelling, poverty-riddled and tick-paying, degraded and insecure—member of the working class—the measure of the reformer’s ambition for those now “discriminated against”? Is this his conception of freedom and the cause for which he encourages workers to face armed police thugs?

Even the reforms that the Civil Rights people advocate can only be achieved when they are understood and accepted by the vast majority of those who presently oppose them. Our local capitalists and their political flunkeys, the Unionist Party, do not now require bigotry and hatred to serve their economic interests and most of them would probably approve the full Civil Rights programme tomorrow if they were not prisoners of their own past; but they cannot pass an Act of Love. They cannot sweep away in one legislative brush the hatred and bigotry they so carefully husbanded only yesterday. In the last analysis, only a sustained campaign to clear away the political and religious garbage that the working class got from its leaders of yesterday can achieve the puny reforms demanded.

But why should members of the working class involve themselves in a campaign against some of capitalism’s lesser evils, a campaign rendered more difficult by capitalism’s built-in bias for the creation of sectional interests?

Even without the votes of the disenfranchised, even against the multiple votes of property, we have enough power now in the votes of the working class to banish capitalism and all its problems and establish a free society of production for use. What the working class lacks is an understanding of the alternative to capitalism, Socialism. This, like the puny demands of Civil Rights, can only be achieved by a sustained campaign among our fellow members of the working class. But why struggle for the apple when the same effort can bring us the orchard?

Richard Montague