1990s >> 1994 >> no-1082-october-1994

The Masquerade and the Reality

Having spent a quarter of a century trying to force the British government to sever its political and military connection with Northern Ireland and of trying to coerce the Unionist population into accepting a United Ireland against their will through the threat of violence, the IRA has finally called it a day and called a permanent ceasefire. In some quarters at least, notably amongst desperate Dublin politicians, this is the interpretation put on the statement from the IRA that they had ordered “a complete cessation of military operations”. The hard reality of countless IRA atrocities, however, has taught most people living in Northern Ireland to be somewhat more cynical of the IRA’s words and motives than the Dublin government appears to be. The overwhelming response to the Provo’s “Peace Process” is to question why the people who brought us La Mon House, Abercorn, Teebane, Shankill Road, to name but some of the worst outrages, and who had no compunction in placing entire working class ghettoes under the iron heel of Nationalist conformity, have suddenly let go of the armalite for a two handed grip on the ballot box.

The Unionists, of course, are particularly sceptical and distrustful. Not withstanding the predictable antics of Paisley, whom more and more Protestants are dismissing as a political clown, there is genuine concern amongst the majority that something has been done behind their backs. Reasons for the distrust are not far to seek. It has been common knowledge now amongst the majority of Unionists that the British government considers Northern Ireland as an economic black hole into which £3 billion of its revenues disappears annually. They know that the British would dump them if they could, and they fear that pressure from what they call the “pan-Nationalist front” — a supposed alliance between the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the Catholic Church, Dublin government and powerful American allies — has nudged the British Government in the direction of a United Ireland.

It is this fear that fuels the activities of the Protestant paramilitaries, whose immediate response to the IRA ceasefire was to murder a Catholic worker, carry out further, unsuccessful, gun attacks on others and to try to blow up Sinn Fein’s Press Office on the Falls Road. Despite the self-delusion of the Protestant paramilitaries that they have significant support amongst the Protestant working class for their activities, most Protestant workers, however misguidedly, are looking to the Unionist establishment to protect what they perceive as their “constitutional position”and their “British way of life”. Aggrieved as they might feel over the actions of a mercenary British government which, as Lord Palmerston once pointed out, has no long-term friends or enemies, only interests, few would sanction the indiscriminate murder of innocent Catholic workers as a legitimate response.

The arguments of the Loyalists in relation to their “British way of life” are the arguments of patriots and nationalists everywhere; they are illogical, mythical and misguided. Socialists are not conned by capitalist propaganda; we see this “way of life” for what it is: a mean, restricted existence made marginally more bearable by a “cultural” diet of American sit-coms, Australian soap operas and all the crap you can eat at McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Garbage; an artificial culture which, for the present historical period at least, a triumphant capitalism has enforced everywhere from Moscow in Russia to Moscow Street on the Shankill Road.

It may be common for the Leninist Left to go into raptures at the very mention of the IRA and to sing hallelujahs to the so-called “armed struggle” (a struggle, which, incidentally, they have shown commendable, indeed, remarkable, restraint in furthering by any sacrifice on their part), but socialists refuse to support one group of misguided nationalist workers as opposed to some other group. Socialists no more support the myths of “republicanism” than we do “loyalism”. Lining up on the side of nationalists means two things; it means drawing battle lines between sections of the working class whose sole interest in capitalism should be to unite to abolish it, and it means promoting the capitalist myth of the “national interest” — in short, collaboration with the bosses. Attempts to solve so-called “national questions”, to rearrange capitalist borders, in other words, is a futile concern to occupy nationalists, not socialists.

It is because of the Left’s policy of mouthing the lunacies of Irish Nationalism in practically the same breath as they spout platitudes about their spurious socialism that most Protestant workers in Northern Ireland are openly hostile to even discussing socialism. This attitude is hardly surprising; for decades every shade of “Socialist” or “Marxist” opinion has reviled the Protestant working class, much as Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, reviled “The ‘dangerous class’, the social scum. . . ,” stigmatising such people as “the bribed tool of reactionary intrigue”. To view the Protestant workers in Northern Ireland as “the bribed tools” of British imperialism, bought off with a small fraction of the “super-profits” accruing to British capitalism through their “occupation” of Ireland, is comforting for people whose historical materialism is so deep that their entire vision of the world resolves itself into supporting “good” nationalists against “bad” nationalists, “good” governments against “bad” governments, and, ultimately, much as the religious superstitionists do, “good” people against “bad” people. The problem with this Leninist claptrap is that it is somewhat at odds with the reality which sees the saints, as well as the sinners, on the receiving end of £3 billion.

State-capitalism supporting “socialists” have done their best to alienate Protestant workers from real socialist ideas, but they haven’t entirely succeeded. Many workers from Protestant ghettoes are starting to recognise that, in a sense, the phoney “socialists” and the Unionist parties have been unwittingly fighting each others’ battles by preventing Protestant workers from coming to a realisation of their class position in capitalism. In the Shankill Road area of Belfast at least there are signs that this realisation is starling to dawn. For example, Eddie Kinner, an ex-UVF lifer who spent thirteen and a half years in jail and who, in conversations with the present writer, openly describes himself, and many of his acquaintances, as socialists, recently had published in The Irish Times an article in which he pointed out that:

  The working class Protestants feel that they have been held responsible for the misrule of the Stormont government under which they were exploited and oppressed just as much as the Catholics. They feel that the Unionists have represented the middle class Protestants and religious fundamentalists but misrepresented the views and position of the working class Protestants. (The Irish Times, September 3 1994)

Working-class Protestants are now starting to articulate their position in a more positive way. Although the activities of the fascists in the IRA have hardened their feelings towards those on the “other side”, many of them, probably the majority, would now admit that the original grievances of the Civil Rights marchers were justified. They accept there was discrimination over jobs and houses and that there were anomalies in the voting system which tended to be directed against Catholics. In no way, however, should Protestant workers feel that some act of contrition on their part is called for. They should recognise that the real discrimination in Northern Ireland, like everywhere else in capitalism, was not practised by those who fought over the crumbs, it was practised by those who took the cake and left the crumbs to be fought over. If Protestant workers were materially any better off, it was because their majority strength compelled the ruling class to fob them off with slightly bigger crumbs.

It was the bosses. Catholic, as well as Protestant, who decided who entered into wage-slavery and who languished on state hand-outs where these existed — or starved, where they didn’t. The bosses could pick and choose. From the very outset, the capitalist class of the North East of Ireland had decided that their economic interests were best served by a retention of the union with Britain for the sole reason that this also retained their access to British markets.

Naturally, as most working class Catholics had been duped into believing that their interests were with the Southern capitalists, and said so, they were seen as hostile to the new set-up which served the interests of the northern capitalists. Discrimination was the result. What were Protestant workers to do? Refuse to take the jobs and watch their families suffer even more than they already were on the grounds that a Catholic worker might have been “unfairly” passed over? Are socialists to accept that if there had been a Catholic majority in the state, a Catholic parliament for a Catholic people and an overwhelmingly Catholic ruling class, that the attitude of these to a recalcitrant minority of Protestant workers would have been any different? To argue this way is to show an abysmal ignorance of how capitalism works.

Everywhere capitalism exists it creates conflict. Capitalism pits state against state over positions of military and economic influence, capitalist against capitalist over markets, raw materials and cheap labour power, capitalist against worker over wages and conditions and worker against worker over a continuous scramble for scarce jobs. Conflict is capitalism’s permanent condition; the problem is that there is no shortage of people whose ignorance and bigotry enables the conflict to masquerade as one based on nationalism, religion or race. Protestant workers in Northern Ireland have been among the worst victims of this masquerade. A community worker in the Glencairn area of Belfast recently complained to the media that his area, a sprawling, ugly estate, pock-marked everywhere by vandalised blocks of flats, had no community centre, no shopping area, no post office, no chemist, no health centre and that gangs of bored youths roamed the area using empty flats as drinking and drug-taking dens. For some, the mask is beginning to slip.

Nigel McCullough