It has become quite common to see the question, “Is there life before death?” daubed on the walls of Bogside, Derry. This is not a piece of idle philosophical speculation for during the past fifteen years over 25,000 people have been injured and 2.200 have met violent and premature deaths in Northern Ireland. Young men, straight from the dole queues of Liverpool, Glasgow and London, parade with weapons up and down rows of terraced houses no different from those where they grew up. In ghettoes such as the Ardoyne there are still some who have not left the area at all since 1969, for fear of attack. All those involved, whether they are soldiers, IRA or UDA men, have one thing in common: they are workers, with no stake in the investments of British or Irish capitalism.
A Belfast doctor, interviewed on one of the television histories of Ireland, explains: “One has just got to be blunt, almost brutal at times, through the night, telling you your wife has lost both her legs, your young son has been killed in an explosion. This is the sort of situation which we’re faced with almost daily in this hospital”. This is the horrific reality of war. What, then, are the sides in this conflict supposed to be fighting for?
The idea of British workers supporting the rule of their British masters in Ireland has its origins rooted in the private ownership of a tiny minority. In 1654, the English Parliament ordered the English governors throughout Ireland to proclaim that:
all the ancient estates and farms of the people of Ireland were to belong to the adventurers and the army of England, and that the Parliament had assigned Connaught for the habitation of the Irish nation, whither they must transplant their wives and daughters and children before the First of May following under penalty of death if found on this side of the Shannon after that day.
Those “Protestant” workers in Northern Ireland who support the continued rule over that province by the British capitalist class do so out of a severely misguided loyalty. They have been conned into believing that their tenuous link with the “Protestant Ascendancy” will guarantee them security.
What does it mean, to preserve the “British way of life” in the slums of Shankhill? Every year on July 12, the pathetic banners protest defiantly: “This we will maintain”, while all around the poverty cries out to be ended. Most people in Belfast live in rows of houses which were built early in the nineteenth century, during which the city’s population multiplied eight times over. One in seven homes have now been declared officially unfit for habitation. Raw sewage leaks out into the Moyard estate in West Belfast, and cases of jaundice, gastro-enteritis and diarrhoea among children are frighteningly high. Rats are quite prevalent: a locally produced pamphlet states that some residents have been bitten and taken to hospital with the rat still clinging to them, because it had lock-jawed.
At all times and places, nationalism has always been the rallying cry of those minorities who hold power, or who hope to hold power in the future. Today’s romantic rebels and guerrilla “freedom” fighters always become the respected capitalists of tomorrow. In Ireland nationalism has passed through three stages, according to which group has had the greatest hopes of becoming the parasitic “representatives” of Irish people in a particular period. First, at the end of the eighteenth century, there was the secular nationalism which culminated in the 1798 rebellion. The spirit of that movement can be seen from this song, written at the time by Jamie Hope:
Oh. Paddies, my hearties, have done with your parties.
Let men of all creeds and professions agree.
If Orange and Green, man, no longer were seen, man.
Oh. how easy old Ireland we’d free.
With the rise of the linen and shipbuilding industries of the North in the nineteenth century, the Ulster capitalists for a time took on the role of defending the independence of Irish capitalism and resented the limitations on their power imposed by the 1801 Act of Union. As their interests expanded they became more and more in favour of strengthening the bonds between Belfast and London, in order to gain easier access to the trade channelled through London. By 1914 the businessmen, politicians and landowners of the Ulster Unionist Council were so determined to remain part of the British market that they responded to the Home Rule Bill by arming the Ulster Volunteer Force, which was prepared if necessary to fight against Britain in order to remain under British rule.
The third wave of Irish nationalism was based largely in the South and associated with the religious ideology of Catholicism. In the late nineteenth century the capitalists of the South, without the advanced industry of their counterparts in the North, wanted Home Rule—domination over Irish workers by Irish, rather than English. rulers. They felt this would allow them to establish tariff boundaries around Ireland, in order to build up the less developed capitalism of the South under Protectionism. In 1905, in support of this movement, Sinn Fein was founded by Arthur Griffith
, a racist who was fanatically anti-trade union. His desire to establish an Irish stock exchange and Irish police and prisons was part of a myth that Ireland could become “self-sufficient” and cut off from the rest of world capitalism.
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 was, of course, accompanied by all of the traditional obsession with flags, “nationhood” and so on. The IRA today claim that they are still acting on the mandate given to Sinn Fein at the ballot box in 1918. to carry on the functions of executive government throughout Ireland, including the decisions of war and peace. But the 1918 election was won on Sinn Fein’s old policies, not its more recent support for state capitalism.
From the 1920s to the 1960s the Republic of Ireland pursued a rigidly protectionist course. Over half of industry was nationalised. In 1937, there was enacted one of the most repressive codes of religious and moral law of any modern Catholic state, forbidding divorce and stating that a woman must support the state “by her life within the home”. The 1937 Constitution also described the traditional family as “a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law”. Protectionism ended in the 1960s with the rise of the multi-nationals, the 1965 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, and the 1973 accession of Ireland to the EEC.Belfast now has the highest unemployment rate in Britain, about one in four workers. Ten per cent of the people in Belfast are in one-parent families. For fifty years the Unionist Party ruled Northern Ireland by denying any religious discrimination while practising just enough of it to retain Protestant support. This reward itself demonstrates the poverty on which this sectarianism was based. When Paisley led Protestant workers against the Civil Rights movement, he was urging them desperately to cling on to less than nothing. In the words of an Orange song about church and state being more important than democracy: “Let not the poor man hate the rich nor rich on poor look down. But each join each true Protestant, For God and for the crown”.
This dangerous rubbish is part of a long tradition of divide and rule. The Orange Order was formed in 1795, as part of a resentment against the onset of capitalism, and intimidated the relatively independent Catholic weavers. A Dungannon magistrate said at the time:
As for the Orangemen, we have a rather difficult card to play; they must not be entirely discountenanced—on the contrary, we must in a certain degree uphold them, for with all their licentiousness, on them we must rely for the preservation of our lives and properties, should critical times occur. (Quoted in Liam de Paor, Divided Ulster, p.26)
The issue is not one of religion or nationality, but of class. Under Unionist rule, Catholic businessmen had extra votes, just like their Protestant colleagues. Nationalists are fighting a war to replace one set of rulers by another. The way in which the champions of Irish “freedom” step straight into the iron-capped boots of their predecessors is summed up by a woman in Turf Lodge, a decaying, overcrowded estate on the Falls Road:
The hoods have taken over. They hijack our vans, our shops. In the beginning it was all our cause, our country, but I don’t believe in it anymore (National Geographic, April 1981).
Workers in Northern Ireland are beginning to recognise their shared interest, regardless of the terrible legacy of rival religious superstitions and of rival capitalist interests of North and South. For example, the Cross Group has brought together Catholic and Protestant women whose husbands have died in the war, and helped them to realise that they are not “Protestant” or “Catholic” at all, but working-class pawns in the old conflicts and ideologies of property which they are forbidden to enjoy. Andy Tyrie, who became the commander of the Ulster Defence Association in 1973, has since rethought:
I grew up in Ballymurphy when it was a mixed neighbourhood. I learned that Prods weren’t anything special—we lived in the same houses as Catholics, got the same money for the same jobs (National Geographic, April 1981).
Opinion polls have suggested that a majority of workers in Britain may now be in opposition to the British army presence in Northern Ireland. But the issue is not which army is where, but why there should be a need for armed force at all. Kenneth Newman, who was appointed Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police after heading the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has described Northern Ireland as “a laboratory situation”:
I have it very much in mind that British police forces would be faced with similar problems in the years ahead. Not just from the Provisional IRA. but from certain obvious developments in the demographic areas and urban developments (Irish Times, August 1976).
The “Irish” problem will be solved when the world’s workers end the social problems of the world: the monopoly by one international class of the vital wealth-producing machinery of the world. Only in this way can we secure, in the words of the Declaration of Principles of the World Socialist Party of Ireland, the “emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex”. Socialists repudiate the Irish nationalism of James Connolly but we endorse to the letter his declaration that “Whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground”.