1990s >> 1998 >> no-1125-may-1998

Northern Ireland: Is it Peace?

Those who have given into the utterly absurd contentions that induces members of the working class to give allegiance to flags and patriotic vapourings may feel injured or elated by the 10 April Anglo-Irish Agreement, but in terms of working-class life it is irrelevant except in that it might restrain the opposing patriots from slaughtering one another.

History is a sequential process, each chapter being an intermix of the past and the present. People do not take those political decisions that then become history with the freedom of an artist choosing a colour from a palette; on the contrary, though political decisions may be fashioned to serve the dominant economic interests, prevailing ideas handed down from the past play a vital role in the acceptance or rejection of such ideas.

Irish history, dominated as it was by the interests of its historically powerful neighbour, Great Britain, and the old imperialist strategy of deliberately introducing and promoting division, is especially convoluted. The most relevant historical milestone is the partitioning of Ireland in 1921 under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act which created Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland). The Act that legalised partition had no democratic basis in Ireland, north or south; in the elections of 1918 Sinn Fein had won a majority of seats (though on a minority vote of the people of all Ireland); then–as now with the two Sinn Fein MPs, Adams and McGuinness—but refused to take their seats in the Westminster parliament.

Instead they chose to establish an Irish parliament, or Dail, which the British promptly declared illegal. The following year, in Co Tipperary, what the British called “the troubles” and the Irish called the Anglo-Irish war broke out when an IRA column shot dead a policeman escorting a donkey laden with dynamite being brought to a quarry.

Immediate and terrible war

For two years, thereafter, a guerrilla struggle ensued and a war of terror and counter-terror raged throughout the country until the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, initiated peace negotiations in 1921. Out of these the British imposed the partition settlement which retained the six north-eastern counties of Ireland as a self-governing entity within the United Kingdom while allowing the twenty-six remaining counties to constitute a “Free State” while still being a British dominion. The Irish delegation to the peace talks later claimed that Lloyd George and Churchill enforced acceptance of this proposal under the threat of “immediate and terrible war”.

In the new Irish Free State, division surfaced within the IRA arising out of the acceptance of Partition and the imposition on the Irish Dail of an oath of loyalty to the British monarch. Civil war resulted which lasted until 1924. The conflict was rooted not simply in the economic interests of the nascent Irish capitalist class, whose interests Sinn Fein represented, but in the ideological fictions promoted by Irish republicanism in order to enlist the support of the working class and small farmers in the struggle for an Irish capitalist republic.

In fact the solution imposed by Britain suited the three sides to the Irish conflict at that time. The British, whose interests in Ireland were now largely strategic, would retain control over Northern Ireland with indirect control over the Irish Free State. The emerging Irish capitalist class, whose interests were reflected in the IRA struggle, would have the law-making processes they wanted to nurture their fledgling industries, and the Unionists in the north would retain their access to the British home market and enjoy the benefits of Empire Preference for the north’s shipbuilding, engineering and textile industries.

If history was simply a reflex of material interests, the matter may have ended there but, as Marx pointed out, while we make our own history, that history is contained to a greater or lesser extent by the dead hand of the past. The Northern Ireland state had been tailored by the architects of division to ensure the widest possible territory consistent with what was hoped would be a permanent Protestant majority that could then impose on the Catholic Nationalist element of the population a permanent quasi-democratic dictatorship.

Protestant and Catholics united

From the outset, the Unionist government of Northern Ireland whipped up anti-Catholic bigotry in order to keep a firm control of their Protestant voting fodder and the Catholics responded by refusing to co-operate with the Unionist state. Bigotry, political gerrymandering, draconian legislation and an armed police force backed by an armed, exclusively Protestant, auxiliary police were the weapons of the Government. Inevitably, the Catholic minority, already churlish and antagonistic towards the state, were driven into new heights of hostility.

Northern Ireland was born in violence. Sectarian murder and arson were the accepted weapons of the upper class Unionist gentlemen who took over the running of the state. As long as it was the poor, the grossly impoverished working class, Catholics and Protestants who were hurting one another, it was a tolerable strategy that helped to foster the fallacious notion that simply being a Protestant in the new state was a guarantee of privilege.

That Protestant members of the working class were subject to the same mean lifestyle as their fellow Catholics was made manifest in 1932, when the state was eleven years old. Faced with massive unemployment, the government decreed that unemployed people who were single would not get any unemployment benefit; instead, they should apply for admittance to the workhouse.

Together in poverty, the single unemployed united in an unemployed movement; in Belfast they marched up the Lisburn Road to the workhouse which, of course, could not admit them. The government called out the armed RUC to face down the workers; it tried desperately to divide them on religious grounds and, failing to subdue them with police thuggery or sectarian cajoling, it surrendered and re-instituted the miserable pittance to all the unemployed.

In the three years that followed, the loyalist organisations like the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys, whose leaders were frequently members of the government or members of the government party, worked hard to re-establish the hegemony of sectarian division and, in 1935, in the midst of a desperate economic crisis, yet another vicious sectarian clash occurred, requiring the intervention of the British military.

Momentous event

Before the commencement of World War Two the IRA inaugurated a bombing campaign in England and in the early nineteen forties there was a further upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland. In 1956 the IRA embarked on yet another campaign of terror which was largely confined to the border areas. After a spectacular start, this fizzled out and, for the first time ever, the IRA, in 1962, admitted defeat.

Acknowledging the growing accommodation between the northern Catholic Nationalists and the Northern Ireland state following on the introduction of “welfare” capitalism–which the post-war Labour government had forced the reluctant Unionist leaders to accept–the IRA statement accepting defeat condemned the northern Nationalists for “selling their heritage for a mess of pottage”. For the first time in the twentieth century the gun had been taken out of Irish politics.

In the growing spirit of toleration, Nationalist politicians accepted the role of official opposition in the Stormont parliament and, against the background of a new Anglo-Irish Free Trade agreement, the Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland met his southern Irish counterpart in Stormont.

But if the politics of reality was forcing events forward, the dead hand of the past was actively provoking reaction and the prime instrument of that reaction was the demagogic hot-gospeller, Ian Paisley. When Catholics and liberal Protestants combined in a struggle for Civil Rights they were opposed by a ranting Paisley and a coterie of fanatical bigots who used the fascist tactic of the counter-demonstration to provoke civil disturbance.

Ironically, Paisley and his bigoted ilk exacerbated a conflict that created the material conditions for the emergence of the Provisional IRA and for nearly thirty years of internecine warfare. He and his political and religious cohorts have greeted every effort to find an accommodation between the warring parties with accusations of treachery and “sell-out” directed at his fellow Unionists. He has mounted campaigns and crusades down the years the purpose of which is allegedly to “save Ulster” from treachery and now, following the “peace” agreement signed between the main representatives of Unionism and Irish Nationalism, he is bellowing his denunciation with the claim that this is Ulster’s most calamitous crisis–which seems like a confession of past failures.

“The Agreement”, which is the simple title given to the document which is being widely circulated in Northern Ireland and which has been picked over in detail by the media since 10 April, betrays the utter futility of sectarian politics and paramilitary terrorism. Bigotry and violence, including state violence, have killed some 3,500 people and injured a further 40,000 and, apart from the gangsters and ghouls who have found opportunity for gain in this mayhem, it has not advanced the condition of any section of the working class.

“Some gain and some pain”

Socialists would be fools if they did not hope that this agreement succeeds in bringing an end to the violence, in ending the killing, the maiming and the torching of peoples’ homes; in ending, too, a political ambience in which only the absurd politico-religious posturings of the conflicting factions is regarded as valid political debate. The promoters of the Agreement, the British and Irish governments claim that it represents a reasonable compromise between the parties and the political spin masters have coined the phrase, “Some gain and some pain” for all.

Paisley and his hate-mongers as well as the Orange Order and the corresponding lunatic fringes of Irish nationalism are mounting campaigns to encourage a “No” vote in the impending referendum. Given that these people see the alternative to the Agreement as a fight to the finish, one would think their lunacies would be rejected out-of-hand by the electorate on 22 May.


[In our next issue we will analyse the position of the main participants in the aftermath of the 22 May referendum.]

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