1960s >> 1969 >> no-778-june-1969

Who Rules in Ulster?

The landlords rule in Ulster, according to Bernadette Devlin, Mid-Ulster’s new Westminster MP. In her maiden speech in parliament on April 22 she spoke of “the ruling minority of landlords who, for generations, have claimed to represent one section of the people and, in order to maintain their claim, divide the people into two sections”.

“There is no place for us,” she declared, “in the society of landlords because we are the ’have-nots’ and they are the ’haves’”.

She attacked “the bigoted and sectarian Unionist Party, which uses a deliberate policy of dividing the people in order to keep the ruling minority in power and to keep the oppressed people of Ulster oppressed”.

The rest of her speech had asides about “hyphenated names” and “a fine gentleman known among ordinary Irish people as the Squire of Ahoghill” (O’Neill) and vague talk about “social justice” and “the needs of the people”.

This old-fashioned, radical speech seemed to go down well with the assembled MPs, but disclosed a certain confusion of thought. How her views came to be described as ‘Marxist’ is difficult to understand.

She is right to see class, rather than religion, as the important factor —only she has got the classes wrong. It is not true that those who own the land and live off the rent are the ruling class in Northern Ireland. The bulk of the population live and work under capitalist conditions. Excluded from owning the means of production, they have to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage to those who own the factories, the offices, the mills, and the docks and shipyards of Ulster.

Those who own the land, “by ancient Charter of Charles II” as Devlin put it, are now only a subordinate section of the ruling capitalist class. Indeed, now that they have turned their land-owning into a profit-making business they too are capitalists living off profit rather than rent. The capitalists, not the landlords, are the ruling minority in Northern Ireland.

To see the issue as ’the people versus the landlords’ it to obscure the real class struggle between workers and capitalists. Historically this slogan, and the use of the word ‘people’ to include everybody save the land-owning nobility, was used by the rising middle class (which later became the ruling capitalist class). It has always served as a stand-by for unscrupulous demagogues like Cobden, Bright, Joseph Chamberlain, and Lloyd George to divert the workers’ attention from capitalist exploitation.

Of course we are not suggesting that this is Bernadette Devlin’s aim too. Far from it —she obviously thinks that what she is doing and saying is right. We are just pointing out that her anti-landlordism is not only irrelevant to the real situation in Northern Ireland but could also be seriously misleading and dangerous to the interests of the working class.

Richard Montague