Background to Northern Ireland: “A Protestant Government”

The Ulster Unionists weren’t too happy about the 1920 Government of Ireland Act for, although it provided for Partition, it clearly intended that this should be only temporary. Fortunately for them the Republicans in the South didn’t think much of it either and stood by their January 1919 Declaration of Independence under which an all-Ireland Republican government had purportedly been set up. The 1921 Treaty which ended the resulting Anglo-Irish War made Partition likely to be much more permanent than originally intended and the Ulster Unionists settled down to govern their own six-county statelet.

The Belfast parliament was not just a glorified county council. It had some real political power since it had at its disposal armed force: the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a para-military police force along the lines of the old Royal Irish Constabulary which had been set up in the 19th Century to help hold down the Irish peasantry. This was soon supplemented by a much larger force of part-time auxiliary policemen, also armed and all Protestants (the RUC at least had some Catholic members), called B Specials.

The Belfast parliament also had the power to legislate on law and order in the six counties and one of their first measures was to pass the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act of 1922. This notorious Act, which was renewed annually for some years before being made permanent, allowed the government to detain people and intern them without trial, to ban meetings and newspapers and — the clause one South African Prime Minister said he’d scrap all his own repressive legislation for — arrest a person who does anything “calculated to be prejudicial to the preservation of peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland and not specifically provided for in the regulations”. The immediate political problem which faced the new Unionist government was that a third of its subjects — the Nationalist, Catholic minority — were opposed, sometimes violently, to its very existence and would have preferred to be governed by the newly-established Southern Irish ruling class in Dublin. They had to be subdued — by terror and intimidation. Already in 1920 there had been a vicious anti-Catholic pogrom in Belfast, when Catholic workers were driven out of the shipyards, their homes burned and their wives and children sent fleeing South. In other parts too of the about-to-be-established “Northern Ireland” Catholics were driven across what was soon to be the Border. After Partition the B Specials and the Special Powers Act were to be the permanent weapons of anti-Nationalist, anti-Catholic intimidation.

But not even this was a sufficient guarantee to the Belfast capitalists and their politicians in the Unionist party that some day by some means the Northern Nationalists might not succeed in re-uniting Ireland — behind the dreaded tariff walls. The normal rules of political democracy had to be set aside. Before Partition the British government had introduced proportional representation in Ireland, first for local and then for general elections. The Ulster Unionists never liked this for the very reason that it would give the Northern Nationalists representation in proportion to their numbers! They resolved to abolish it at the first opportunity, and did — in 1923 for local elections and in 1929 for general elections. This paved the way for the further gerrymandering of local council boundaries, particularly in areas with Nationalist majorities such as the town of Londonderry and the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Derry was the most notorious example: here a two-thirds Nationalist majority among the electorate was turned into a two-thirds Unionist majority on the council. This was not only because Derry had an important role in Orange mythology, but also — and more importantly — because it was the centre of the Ulster shirt-making industry which, like Belfast heavy industry, was geared to Britain and its export markets. In fact at the time of the 1924 Boundary Commission the Derry shirt manufacturers specifically argued against being transferred to the Free State on the grounds that this would cut them off from markets behind possible Irish tariff walls.

From some points of view Northern Ireland itself was one big gerrymander. The Belfast capitalists were primarily concerned with keeping the link between industrialized East Ulster and Britain, but were prepared to take in other areas so long as they had a Unionist, Protestant majority. The full nine counties of Ulster had a slight Nationalist, Catholic majority which was obviously unacceptable. But once Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan had been conceded to the Free State the Unionists had a two-thirds majority in the remaining six counties, despite the fact that Fermanagh and Tyrone too had Nationalist majorities.

So, right from the start, Northern Ireland was corrupt from a democratic point of view. Not that the Unionist politicians who ruled continuously from 1921 ever bothered to pretend otherwise until a few years ago. Lord Craigavon, its first Prime Minister (who as James Craig had before the war been a leader of the planned Ulster Provisional Government with its armed UVF), openly declared in 1932, “Ours is a Protestant government”, and in July 1934 told the Belfast parliament, “We are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant State” (quoted in Divided Ulster by Liam De Paor).

Such sentiments were repeated by subsequent Northern Ireland Prime Ministers including Lord Brookeborough, the man who once boasted that he did not “have a Roman Catholic about my own place” and who remained Prime Minister until 1963.

One of the reforms introduced in Britain after the second world war was “one man, one vote” in local council elections. Previously only ratepayers and their wives had been able to vote while under certain circumstances a businessman could have more than one vote. The Ulster Unionist government in Northern Ireland chose not to implement this reform for the crude reason that it would have enfranchised more Nationalists than Unionists. It was estimated that this left at least a quarter of adult men and women without a vote in local elections.

Local councils also had other opportunities to discriminate against Nationalists and Catholics. Certain jobs and houses were reserved for Protestants and particularly for supporters of the Unionist party.

The Catholic minority gave its political support to the reactionary and clerical-dominated Nationalist party who were often known as “Green Tories” and, in Belfast and one or two other towns, to various Labour parties — “Irish Labour”, “Republican Labour” and even on occasions “Northern Ireland Labour”. The Nationalist party lost much of its support at the 1969 Northern Ireland general election to various Civil Rights and Labour candidates who later formed the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), at the moment the main political party supported by the Catholic minority.

The Unionists retained the support of the Protestant workers and small farmers by continuing to stir up sectarian hatreds and fears. It was a measure of the backwardness of politics there that “REMEMBER 1690”, “NOT AN INCH”, “NO SURRENDER” and the like were, and still are, powerful political slogans. The Unionists successfully tricked the Protestant workers into believing that there was some special advantage for them in Northern Ireland being part of Britain rather than of Ireland. The Protestant worker came to believe that he was privileged as compared with his Catholic fellow worker and that any extension of civil rights to the Catholics would be a threat to his supposed privileges. This was a great illusion, but one which has retained mass Protestant working class support for the Unionist party, the Northern Ireland counterpart of the British Tories. The average Protestant worker has never even advanced to the limited-enough trade union and reformist consciousness represented by support for a Labour party. The Northern Ireland Labour Party, despite protestations of loyalty to the Crown and even of support for the Special Powers Act, has always remained a small minority party.

The Protestant worker never has been in any privileged position. He has always suffered from the working-class problems of poverty, slums and unemployment. And indeed it was only because of this that Unionist local councils were able to bribe a few of them with the occasional job or house in preference to a Catholic worker. One of the more pathetic Northern Ireland scenes has always been to see on the twelfth of July the Protestant slums of Belfast adorned with the unintentionally ironic banner, “THIS WE WILL MAINTAIN”.

The trade union movement in Northern Ireland is largely an extension of that of the rest of Britain and is the one mass organisation which unites both Protestants and Catholics, though there are two “transport and general workers’ unions” in the docks, one Protestant, the other Catholic. As in the South trade unions suffered more legal restrictions than in Britain, at least until the recent Industrial Relations Act. This Act does not apply to Northern Ireland (so making here, somewhat ironically, the part of the whole British Isles with the least restrictive trade union laws), but the 1927 Trades Disputes Act passed as a punitive measure after the British General Strike still applies and on one occasion the Special Powers Act was used against trade unionists. The main effect of this Act has been to make trade unionists who want to pay the political levy to finance the pro-capitalist Labour Party “contract in” (but Socialists don’t object to this since it is more democratic than the British system whereby those who don’t want to finance the Labour Party have to “contract out”).

This situation — where a corrupt Unionist clique ruled continuously by lies and threats and, despite having majority support, undemocratic practices — was accepted by successive Westminster governments, Labour as well as Conservative, until the whole system began to break down in 1968 and 1969.

As long as the Southern Ireland government pursued a protectionist policy the demand for a United Ireland, which most Catholics in the North supported, really was a threat to the material interests of the Belfast capitalists. Accordingly, those interests demanded that the Unionists continue to stir up sectarianism as a means of retaining mass support for Union with the British market. But when, from about 1960 onwards, the Southern Ireland government finally abandoned protection and sought, and eventually got, free trade with Britain (including Northern Ireland), the Irish Nationalism of the Catholic minority was not such a threat and the way was open for more friendly relations between Belfast and Dublin. This change was symbolized by the resignation in 1959 of De Valera as Prime Minister and his later election as figure-head President of the Irish Republic and the resignation in 1963 of Lord Brookeborough as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

De Valera’s successor, Lemass, began to speak of the North as “Northern Ireland” instead of the previously obligatory “Six Counties”, thus conceding it a certain amount of legitimacy. In the North the Nationalist MPs agreed to become “her majesty’s” official opposition and Brookeborough’s successor, O’Neill, authorised flags on official buildings to fly at half-mast on the death of Pope John in June 1963, a startling sight in a city like Belfast where the slum walls were daubed with the slogan “NO POPE HERE”. In January 1965 Lemass travelled secretly to meet O’Neill in Belfast; the following month O’Neill slipped off to Dublin. In December the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement was signed. It appeared that the future held out the gradual disappearance of the sectarian bitterness which had been a feature of Northern Ireland political life since the 1880’s, a hope seemingly confirmed by the failure of the 1956-62 IRA campaign against the North because of lack of support from the Catholic minority.

But this was not to be. The Unionist government could now without danger have abandoned its corrupt and undemocratic practices and O’Neill — the first Northern Ireland Prime Minister not to claim to be governing a Protestant State for a Protestant People — did urge this. But it was no easy task for the Unionist political machine to suddenly turn off the hatreds it had assiduously cultivated for the previous eighty years. In fact nearly every prominent figure in Northern Ireland life — judges and Church leaders as well as politicians — is on record as saying, not so very long ago, what the Rev. Ian Paisley now says.

When a Civil Rights movement arose to demand the end of the various corrupt and undemocratic practices — the gerrymandering, the restricted franchise, discrimination over housing and jobs, the B Specials and the Special Powers Act — the Unionist government, with present Ulster Vanguard leader William Craig as Home Affairs Minister, reacted as it had done towards all previous opposition movements supported by Catholics: it saw it as a threat to the existence of the Unionist statelet, as a Republican plot to be ruthlessly crushed. It was a fatal mistake which within four years led to the overthrow, by a British Tory government, of fifty years of Unionist rule in Northern Ireland. In any event, almost the whole Civil Rights programme — with the exception of the repeal of the Special Powers Act, but even this would probably have been replaced by something less comprehensive but just as effective had not war broken out between the Provisional IRA and the British Army in February 1971 — had already been conceded. In fact the franchise in Northern Ireland is now wider than in the Republic: it gives votes at 18 while the South still sticks to 21.

So Northern Ireland too is now back where it was before the first world war: ruled directly from Britain. The fifty-year stretch of Ulster Unionist rule over the six counties of North-East Ireland stands out as an episode in the development of capitalism in Ireland, as a means of preventing the Belfast capitalists from having been cut off from the rest of industrial Britain behind the tariff walls of an agricultural Ireland. The fear of the effect this would have had on profits has been the material basis of Belfast’s steadfast Unionism and “Loyalty”. The Unionists, as the saying puts it, were basically more loyal to the half-crown than the Crown.


For an exposure of the Southern Irish Capitalist Republic see last month’s issue.

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