Ireland is one of the most important issues facing the British labour movement. For a quarter of a century the Six Counties of north-east Ulster have been in a state of latent, and sometimes open, civil war.
In all this time, the left in Britain has been able to do nothing to help our working-class brothers and sisters, the majority of the people in both the Catholic and the Protestant communities, find a way out of the bloody cul-de-sac into which sectarianism, the conflict of national identities and an irrational partition have forced them.
One reason for this is that the left itself has never understood the issues, seeing national liberation struggle where there is communal strife, a potential for socialism where the prospect is of sectarian civil war, and hope for a united Ireland — if only Britain will gets its “Troops Out” — where bloody repartition would certainly follow a British withdrawal without a political settlement.
Here in 60 simple, basic, plain propositions we set out our view of the “Irish problem as it really is.” We invite comment and refutation on these propositions.
The basic conflict
The Provisional IRA is backed and sustained by a sizeable part of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland, by a third or more of Northern Ireland’s Catholics.
The IRA and its long war, in Northern Ireland and in Britain, is a product of many decades of British and Orange misrule in the Six Counties, of Catholic-sectarian rule in the 26 Counties this century, and of many centuries of British oppression before that.
It is also the continuation of a long line of Catholic-sectarian politics; it is the antithesis of republicanism. Its main political ancestor is not Wolfe Tone or James Connolly, but Joseph Devlin and the Catholic version of the Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
For half a century before 1969 the Catholics were second-class citizens within a Northern Ireland state ruled by the Protestant Unionists, under British protection and nominal control.
The Six Counties state was set up to guard Ireland’s Protestant minority from possible oppression by the island’s Catholic majority. The Protestant population wanted it. It was their second-best alternative to all of Ireland remaining united to Britain. Inside the “Protestant state for a Protestant people” (as a Northern Ireland prime minister once described it), Catholics were at the start one in three of the 1.5 million population, bigger as a proportion of the population than Protestant-Unionists would have been in an all-Ireland state. They are the majority in two of the Six Counties — Fermanagh and Tyrone — and in one of the main boroughs, Derry City.
They were discriminated against in jobs, housing and local government voting rights; they were subjected to small-scale police terror by Protestant-sectarian Special Constables.
The Protestants were too frightened of their big Catholic minority, which might “outbreed” them, and of the Catholic-Irish state below the border, to treat them fairly. For fear of the Catholics, and in competition with them for scarce jobs, Northern Ireland Protestant workers tied themselves politically to the Northern Ireland capitalists.
Karl Marx knew what he was talking about when he said, on the basis of the experience of the free common people, the plebs, of ancient Rome, that a nation which enslaves others can not itself be free. Keeping down the Catholics, Northern Ireland’s Protestant-Unionist workers locked themselves into a sectarian ghetto.
Nothing changed until the Catholics revolted at the end of the 1960s, in marches and demonstrations for “civil rights” and “British standards”. At first — before the Provisional IRA had come into existence, and when the then-existing IRA proved no threat to anyone — the Catholics were met with great police violence.
By mid-1969 the Northern Ireland Six Counties state had already lapsed into Catholic-Protestant infighting, and, left to its own devices, it would have spiralled into chaos and civil war. The Six Counties state had shown itself unviable by collapsing.
British soldiers took over the policing of Northern Ireland in August 1969; Britain abolished Protestant majority rule in a Belfast parliament in March 1972 and undertook direct rule.
For 23 years, within the state set up to protect the Protestant majority, Britain has not allowed that Protestant majority to act as a majority, with majority rights, because of the 50-year experience of that majority using its power to oppress the Catholics.
Partition and the Protestants
The attempt to solve Ireland’s Protestant minority problem by a partition which created a bigger, and artificial, Northern Ireland Catholic minority problem was only possible because of the brutal power and determination of the British state and the Tory-Liberal government ruling it, after the First World War. It was a stop-gap, not a solution. It is less of a solution now than it ever was.
The artificially created Catholic minority is now more than four in ten of the Six Counties population. Some time in the first two decades of the 21st century Catholics in Northern Ireland will, on present population trends, outnumber Protestants. Northern Ireland may become a Catholic majority state for a Protestant people!
The emergence of this partition and the present situation in the Six Counties can not be understood except in the perspective of the history which produced it.
Britain’s dual historical role
For centuries, Britain oppressed Ireland, treating it until late in the 19th century as a severely exploited internal colony. Genocidal wars of extermination; religious persecution; the operation for a century of a relentless system of Catholic-Protestant apartheid; a condition of semi-peonage imposed on the Catholic masses for many generations; rule for much of the 19th century and into the 20th century by a repressive state in which British rights such as habeas corpus were very often suspended; the supervision by the British state of business as usual, including the mass export of food, during a famine that recurred every harvest for four successive years, and in which a million people died — these are some of the terrible elements that stand at the back of British-Irish relations, as are the wars and risings that punctuate Irish history.
But Irish-British political relations is not only a chapter of horrors. With the formation of William E Gladstone’s first ministry in 1868 there began an era of economic, social and political reform from above, under pressure from below. Under both Liberal and Tory governments it would last in various phases for half a century. The Ireland that exists now was shaped in its fundamentals by those immense British reforms which, in sum total, amounted to Ireland’s “bourgeois revolution”.
i. In 1869, the Anglican Church of Ireland was disestablished.
ii. In 1870 Gladstone’s Land Act gave the tenant farmers rights on the land for the first time.
iii. On the initiative of the Radical, John Bright, in 1870 the first provision was made for the state to help peasants to become owners of their land by buying out landlords willing to sell. Tenants had to put up one-third of the price and, though the measure was very important in principle, in practice very few did so.
iv. In 1881, a new Gladstone Liberal government legislated much of the anti-landlord programme of the Irish farmers, the “Three F’s” — fair rents, free sale, fixity of tenure. This was not only radical but, in the eyes of many of Gladstone’s contemporaries — of the famous historian of 18th century Ireland, W E Lecky, for example — revolutionary legislation. It impinged on the landlord’s rights of property to such an extent that tenants now shared something like co-ownership with the old landlords. Land courts enforced fair rents, etc.
v. The decisive and all-shaping change, the transition from large-scale landholding by big landlords to a comprehensive system of ownership by the farmers of the land they farmed — the creation of so-called “peasant proprietory” — was systematically carried through over 30 years by British governments after 1885.
Ireland’s bourgeois revolution from above
Peasant proprietorship was not a Liberal but a Tory policy. From the 1870s, the Tories, not the Liberals, were the main party of the British bourgeoisie.*
Beginning with the Ashbourne Act of 1885, and continuing in a series of Acts, the decisive one of which was the Wyndham Land Act of 1903, there was a wholesale transfer of land. The decisive thing in the Tory approach after 1885, the radical break with the previous Liberal conception — the Liberals protested against it — was that the “buying” tenant was not required to put up any part of the purchase price. The state would put up the whole amount, and the buyer of land would then pay the state an amount, usually less than the old rent — even after it had been reduced by the Land Court — for some decades into the future. The British state was giving back to some Irish people, at knock-down prices, what was earlier stolen from the whole Irish people, the land of Ireland. They were deliberately, as an act of social policy, creating many little and not-so-little landlords where there had been but a few very big landlords.
This was the core Tory answer to the Irish problem. Deliberate “social engineering”, it was the major, the decisive element in Ireland’s controlled, “bourgeois revolution”. The process was brought to an effective end by the Free State Land Act of 1923, which tidied up loose ends and settled accounts with the last of the old landlords.**
Political and social reforms accompanied and complemented land reform. In 1898 Britain introduced democratic local government to Ireland — on the then far from democratic UK franchise. The rudimentary post-1909 Liberal welfare state was extended to Ireland, against the will of the Irish middle class (whose leader, John E Redmond, protested in the House of Commons against the ‘extravagance’ of old-age pensions).
The British government carried through this policy of economic and social transformation for a number of separate but interacting and evolving reasons.
i. For military strategic reasons: Trotsky, following Engels, thought that Gladstone was reacting to the fear the British ruling class had felt at the prospect of war — for a while, seemingly a real one — between the USA and Britain — which had been actively sympathetic to the South during the US Civil War — at a time, the mid 1860s, when the US-connected Fenian movement was a powerful force in Ireland, with thousands of sworn-in members inside the British Army. If it had come to war, wrote Engels, Ireland might have become a state of the Union, or else an independent republic under US protection.
ii. Because Britain’s role in Ireland contradicted its generally liberal and constitutionalist politics: Gladstone had long felt the pressure of European liberal opinion on Ireland. Though European liberals, especially Italians, tended to look askance at the Irish Catholic nationalist devotees of liberalism’s Papal enemy, they universally condemned the Irish land system, which English rule fostered and protected in Ireland.
iii. Because of the need to “modernise” Ireland in line with the development of the UK.
Gladstone at first thought that the 1869 and 1870 Acts would suffice to quieten Ireland. (Marx, in his only available comment on the Catholic-Protestant division, thought ‘Disestablishment’ would solve the Catholic-Protestant antagonism.) It did not.
That the Irish were a nationality distinct from the English was then still being denied — and not only by English statesmen. Such a man as Guiseppe Mazzini, the great Italian preacher of liberation to the nations of Europe, also thought that the Irish were not a separate nationality.
In all, Gladstone would try three levels of approach to England’s “Irish question”, the final one being recognition of separate Irish nationhood and support for Home Rule. A decade on from 1869/70 he decided it could only be solved by radical legislation on land tenure — the “Three F’s”.
Reform and revolution
But Gladstone did not come by pure reason to the “Three F’s”, or Home Rule. Reform from above was spurred by fear of revolution from below. In 1879, faced with the failure of the potato crop, and the terrible prospect of a new famine, the Fenian Michael Davitt organised the Land League.*
The Land League was a revolutionary peasant union which bound the farmers together for war against the landlords on rents and evictions, challenging the rights of property that Gladstone would modify in their favour in 1881 in an effort to undercut the Land League. Between 1979 and 1882 a bitter land war raged.
Concessions were for decades accompanied by repression: the first British Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1881 as the Democratic Federation, had as catalyst for its coming into existence the struggle against the Liberal Coercion Bill of 1881.
Not only was there peasant social and economic struggle. There was also great political pressure, and in the background the conspiratorial and sometimes terroristic remnants of the Fenian movement. The Home Rule Association was set up in 1870 by a Protestant Tory lawyer, Isaac Butt. By the end of the ’70s, Home Rule MPs had been organised into a disciplined force in Parliament under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. The numerous Irish voters in British cities were a force in politics and the Home Rule organisations amongst them usually controlled their vote. The Parnellites, the allies of the Land League, used every possible form of parliamentary delaying and disruption at Westminster, with the declared intention of making the government of Britain impossible until Ireland was allowed to govern itself.
In 1885, in the first election under the 1884 Act that gave the franchise to the rural poor, the Parnellites returned 86 MPs to Westminster. They held the balance there and ruthlessly used it, “giving” it to the favoured British party. In 1885 Parnell told Irish voters in Britain to vote Tory and they did. In Parliament the Home Rulers backed the Tories.
Now a combination of party self-interest, the evidence of the Parnellites’ election victory, and the fact that neither Disestablishment nor the “Three F’s” had quieted Ireland pushed Gladstone into his third approach to the Irish question. He decided that Home Rule was necessary. He split his party by it, shedding both the Liberal Whig right and the leaders of the Radical left, most importantly Joseph Chamberlain. These “Liberal Unionists” would work with the Tory Unionists and eventually form one party with them.
Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill — which denied to Ireland government control of foreign policy, the right to raise tariffs and the right to radical action against the landlords — was defeated in the House of Commons, and the Liberal government brought down on the issue in 1886. A second Gladstone Home Rule Bill passed the House of Commons in 1893, but was rejected by the House of Lords, which then exercised an absolute veto.
From 1886 onwards, and especially after the death of Parnell  the Irish were allied to the Liberal Party, though not without frictions, becoming by 1914 a mere tail of that party, dependent on it to one day “deliver” Home Rule.
The Tories and Liberal Unionists rejected Home Rule on the grounds that inevitably it would lead Ireland to full separation, disruption of the Empire, and the use of Ireland as a military base against Britain by Britain’s enemies. They evolved a policy of “killing Home Rule with kindness”. But more than this self-serving “kindness” was involved in the creation of a peasant proprietory. For economic reasons it made increasing sense to the landlords.
Under Gladstone’s 1881 legislation, the landlords had lost a great deal of the control of their own land. Land courts fixed the rents, and tended to lower them. The tenants were militant, and assertive and they had powerful representation in Parliament. In addition, the beginning of shipping corn and meat from Eastern Europe and America threw British and Irish agriculture into a prolonged crisis.
Many landlords came to want to get out. The problem was that the impoverished tenants could not buy them out; so the Tories brought the state exchequer into play on their behalf, evolving a landlord-serving policy that was also, they thought, wise social engineering: they would stabilise Ireland on the basis of peasant ownership. The peak of this British state action came when landlords’ and tenants’ representatives met and agreed a common policy  and then jointly asked the government to finance a wholesale buying out of landlords. The Wyndham Land Act  was the result. This was one of the decisive events in Irish history. It was the undoing of the social side of the conquest of Ireland, but in a bourgeois and Tory way.
Both the British and Irish Marxists at the time were, for social and political reasons, against peasant proprietory, calling for the nationalisation of the land.
Origins of partition
The forces that generated Partition were both internal Irish forces and forces external to Ireland. Internal:
i. Most colonies can be broadly divided into two sorts: where the colonists form a thin, exploiting layer on top of society, as with European rule in most of Africa, and in India; and where whole societies are transplanted and reproduce themselves, class structures and all, after the original native people are driven out, slaughtered, or marginalised — what European colonists did in North America, Argentina, Australia. Both types of colony existed in Ireland, the latter in north-east Ulster. This was the “fault-line” in “Ireland”. Though it does not lie along the Six Counties border, it is the dividing line now.
ii. Over most of Ireland there was a thin smattering of an upper class and its hangers on — a ruling class never accepted, as, for example, the British ruling class was and is widely accepted by the subjugated natives.
iii. Encouraged by the Scots-English state of James the First and Sixth, large numbers of Lowland Scots and English colonists transplanted themselves to Ireland in the first decades of the 17th century.* In north-east Ulster, a full society was recreated from these English and Scots settlers. The ‘natives’ were killed or driven off.
i. The plebeian planters, the so-called “Ulster Scots”, inevitably developed a frontiersman outlook towards the Irish “indians”. In their majority they were Presbyterians, and thus they too suffered legal disabilities in the 18th century. But, compared to the Catholics, they were free. Settlers tended to hold the good land, and when long leases came up for renewal, to resent Catholic efforts to displace them by offering the great landlord higher rents. Catholics existed on the margins of the colony, and on the high or boggy ground, “protected” for their rent by landlords who could not get enough English or Scots Protestant tenants. Areas of mixed Catholic-Protestant territory developed around the Protestant heartland of Antrim and Down. They form the bloody Borderlands of the present Six Counties.
ii. Protestant and Catholic peasant secret societies fought an intermittent war in the 18th century. The Orange Order was founded by Anglican peasants in 1795 after a skirmish in Armagh between Catholic and Protestant farmers in that long internecine war. Wolfe Tone’s Republican United Irishmen formed links with the Catholic underground peasant secret society, the Defenders. This ancient distinction — whose fundamental criterion at any given moment was religious — evolved in the 19th century into the present reality.
iii. As Protestant towns like Belfast and Derry developed economically in the 19th century, Catholics moved in and found work in the lower ranks of the proletariat. They became the majority in Derry City.
During the time of the French Revolution the Presbyterians were republicans, aspiring to unite all the Irish and to win “The Rights of Man in Ireland” by setting up an independent republic. The great fear of the British rulers was that they could, as they aspired to, unite with the Catholic peasants. In fact, “1798” was a series of only notionally connected risings. In the south the peasants war developed elements of a sectarian war against local Protestants — a large group of whom were burned to death in a Wexford barn, at Scullabogue.
Protestants opposed and Catholics welcomed the 1800 Act of Union that abolished the separate — exclusively Protestant — Irish parliament. What proved decisive for the future was that the Union did not, as its architect, British Prime Minister William Pitt, had intended, bring full civil equality for Catholics within the UK. (The King, George III, who had the power of veto, objected that his coronation oath forbade it.) Irish Catholics in the new United Kingdom had to fight for emancipation and equal citizenship. This they did in a legal mass movement led by the liberal Daniel O’Connell, and organised in the villages and towns by the priests. This mobilisation of the Catholic population was not only a political movement for equality, but, to Protestants, a terrifying demonstration of Catholic, and Catholic church power and of potential Catholic hegemony. Inevitably it developed sectarian traits and came to be seen as mainly sectarian by Protestants.
Catholic emancipation won (1829) O’Connell developed a movement for “repeal of the Union”. By now most Protestants had become reconciled to the Union because it brought prosperity to some and was seen by all as a guarantee against domination by the self-assertive Catholic majority.
The Liberal adoption of Home Rule in 1886 ensured that the Protestant population soon moved politically en bloc into support for Unionist Tory politics and that Presbyterians moved into the initially Anglican, and for much of the 19th century despised - it was banned for a while in mid-century - Orange Order.
The strongest labour movement in Ireland existed in north-east Ulster, and it was, because of Home Rule, and because it was mainly Protestant, allied to Orangist landlordism and the bourgeois forces in Ireland. Most workers in Catholic Ireland followed the middle-class Home Rule Party and some supported the Catholic Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
When the Tories “played the Orange card” their game was to use the Irish minority — Unionism had support throughout Ireland — to stop any part of Ireland gaining Home Rule.
After 1910 the Liberals depended on Home Rule votes to stay in government. They passed the third Home Rule Bill. The House of Lords had lost the power of absolute veto, and to stop Home Rule the Tory-Unionists organised an extra-parliamentary movement to threaten armed rebellion against the Liberal government. They declared that they would resist a British backed Home Rule government where they were strong — in Ulster.
From being part of an offensive against Irish Home Rule, the Irish Unionist movement had dwindled into a defensive movement of the Irish minority in Ulster against ejection from the UK and forced incorporation into what they thought of as an alien state.
Backed and incited by the Tories they organised a drilled and armed mass force, pledged to back a provisional Unionist government in Ulster against a Home Rule Dublin parliament. They began to terrorise the “enemy” in their midst, for example driving Catholics and liberal and socialist “rotten Prods” out of the Belfast shipyards.
In one way or another, almost the whole one million strong Protestant population of Ulster was involved: to characterise this movement only by such things as the pogrom in the shipyards is, therefore, either misunderstanding from afar, with hostility generated by their alliance with British Tory landlords, loan lords and capitalist grandees — as with Lenin, who equated them with Russia’s Black Hundreds — or wilful Catholic-Nationalist propaganda.
In 1914, the Liberals backed down and offered a “temporary” exclusion of the Six Counties from Home Rule. The alternative was to try coercion and thus perhaps trigger UK civil war. For the same reason, the Home Rule Party and the Ancient Order of Hibernians backed the Liberal proposal to “temporarily” partition Ireland.
Class and communalism
The Six County exclusion, in which Catholics were an enormous minority, was history’s brutally improvised alternative to a democratic Catholic-Protestant agreement. Why did the two sorts of Irish not negotiate a democratic modus vivendi on a confederal basis? The reason why they did not even try for a democratic solution was that both Irish factions looked to their British allies — the Orange to the Tories and the Green to the Liberals — to use the state power to coerce the other Irish — either to stop Home Rule completely [Protestant-Unionists] or to grant all-Ireland Home Rule and coerce the Irish minority [the Nationalists]. This middle-class Catholic Irish policy of the degenerate Home Rule Party is embodied today in the “strategy” of the Provisional IRA — to coerce Britain into coercing the Protestants.
The Protestant-Orange role in creating the present situation is well known. The share of blame for the development of the present situation that belongs to the middle-class leaders of the Catholic Irish and their “Orange Order”, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, is less well known.
The Home Rule movement was, especially after the priests and the Liberals destroyed Parnell (1890-91), very much, and at the grass roots very openly, a sectarian movement. In the Catholic majority areas of Ireland there went on a relentless process of winkling out Protestant businessmen and of the Catholicisation of everything.* Local priest power was undisguised and uninhibited. It was a process that would go on for decades after independence.* It was on one level a natural process — the rise and self-assertion of those long kept down.**
But it was systematised, orchestrated and organised from the early years of the century by a Catholic mirror image of the Orange Order at its grass roots worst, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Board of Erin).
The AOH claimed origins like the Orange Order and had long existed in the USA. Recognition by the Liberal government as a friendly society under the 1911 Insurance Act helped it spread.
This very bigoted organisation took control of the Home Rule organisation, the United Irish League (UIL). Already Catholic and sectarian, despite having a few powerless Protestant figurehead MPs, and projecting a liberal and “tolerant” facade in England and Westminster, the Home Rule Party came on the ground to be an outright sectarian AOHist movement.
The AOH at grass roots level did almost everything the Orange Order did.***
Some southern unionists found the militant Republican, and then clean, Sinn Fein movement preferable to the old corrupt, venal and demagogic Home Rule movement.
The mechanics of partition
The external force that made partition was the bungling, brutal and partisan force exercised by Britain, which, ultimately, controlled events.
In 1915 the Tories, who had so recently been in open rebellion against the Liberal government, joined the Liberals in a coalition government.****
A year later Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, and the Tories assumed the majority in the coalition government.
Efforts to reach internal Irish compromise on Home Rule — such as the Irish Convention of 1917 — failed. Sinn Fein won 73% of the seats for 48% of the votes cast in the November 1918 election and set up a secession Parliament (Dial Eireann) in January 1919. The Anglo-Irish War of Independence followed. Britain waged a savage war of lawless terror in the south of Ireland. Specially organised thugs — the so-called “Black and Tans” — were set on the rampage. They shot people in the street, systematically destroyed small rural factories (creameries), and burned the centre of Cork City and of small towns like Ennistymon.
A truce in July 1921 led to negotiation and in December 1921, agreement on Dominion Status — which gave the 26 Counties far more power than the old Home Rule proposals had.
Meanwhile, Ireland had been partitioned by the British Tory-majority coalition government, and a separate government existed for the Six Counties. This was not a democratic solution. It laid the basis for all that has followed.
British force and the threat of British force played a large part. When they negotiated with Britain in 1921, the elected representatives of the Irish majority were given the choice of an “immediate and terrible” unequal war, or peace with partition. The civil war that broke out in the 26 Counties in June 1922 was immediately precipitated by a British government ultimatum to the Collins-Griffiths government to disarm the opposition.
Partition was presented by Britain, and accepted by the majority Irish, as a temporary measure. In a few years, the extensive Catholic areas of Northern Ireland — which were conquered territory, the people held against their will — would be allowed to join the South; and, so it was said and believed, the Protestant Unionists would thereby be forced to make a new accommodation with the South: Ireland would then unite.
When in 1925 the “Boundary Commission” met to carry out this part of the 1921 British-Irish treaty, the British and the Northern Ireland Unionists conspired to defend the status quo. Finally, the representatives of southern Irish capitalism accepted it, for a cash payment.
Consequences of partition
“Partition will create a carnival of reaction north and south of the border.” That was James Connolly’s prediction. It is often-quoted and applied only to Protestant rule in the Six Counties. It applied, as Connolly knew it would, to both parts of Ireland.
In the north, there was communal rule; a chronically divided working class; a strong Protestant-Catholic labour movement able to unite on trade union and social questions, but unable to work out a common working class answer to the “constitutional question” — unity of the Six Counties with Britain or with the 26 Counties? — and prone in politics to self-murdering division into support for one or the other bourgeois answer. The Six Counties did however benefit from the social advances won by the British working class.
Though the 1937 De Valera constitution claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, where the majority were Protestants, at the same time it made the 26 Counties an explicitly Catholic confessional state, formally recognising a ‘special place’ in Ireland for the Catholic Church. Bishops and Cardinals could simply tell the government what to do and what not to do.* Social services were rudimentary.
Building on the 1922 Treaty with Britain, the 26 Counties gradually realised full independence, sloughing off Britain’s residual rights, removing the king from his place in the constitution (in 1936), negotiating the withdrawal of Britain’s southern naval bases (1938). It was fully independent by the time of World War II and could remain neutral even in the face of a British and US threat of invasion to reclaim the recently abandoned military bases.
Between 1932 and 1958 the 26 Counties attempted to become economically “independent” and as autarkic as possible behind high tariff walls.
The Southern working-class was cut off from its stronger northern segment and locked into a state whose society had been shaped by the post-1885 Tory land redistribution and by the withering dominance of the Catholic Church.
The southern labour movement too was stultified: socialists were persecuted; priest-led Catholic mobs burned the Communist Party’s building in Dublin in 1933; a priest-led campaign forced the Labour Party to abandon commitments to a — very vaguely defined — Workers’ Republic in 1937.
One consequence of partition — and of the Stalinisation of the Communist movement in the ’20s and ’30s — was that revolutionary politics in Ireland remained heavily confined to the Catholic population and took the form of an anachronistic republican movement with affinities to anarchism — it has juggled with socialist, Stalinist and fascist ideas to buttress its fetishes: Irish unity irrespective of the mind of the Irish peoples and physical force on principle.** Calling itself “Republican” it substituted for the Republican goal of uniting the people of Ireland, the aspiration to force a mechanical, geographical unity of “Ireland”. Politically it was saturated in the official Catholic nationalist ideology of the 26 County state and undertook in its own unofficial way to realise the objectives of that state — Irish “unity”. Essentially, despite its formal adherence to Republicanism, it was in Northern Ireland a communal movement. After 1969 this anachronistic hybrid movement would be able to shape events.
The issues now
Both the people of the 26 Counties and the Northern Ireland Protestants have self-determination. The victims, those who lack self-determination, are the Six Counties’ Catholics. Most of them, those in the Protestant majority areas, could not have self-determination without denying self-determination to the larger population in which they are merged. Here it is a tragic conflict of right against right.
The 26-county Republic is an independent state, part of the European Union. It is not a neo-colony; if, because of foreign investment, it is said to be a neo-colony, then it is a certainty that it is not a British neo-colony. British “occupation” of the Six Counties has nothing to do with it.
The 26 Counties of Ireland cannot become more “independent” than it is now, as a small partner within the strong EU imperialist bloc.
Britain is in Northern Ireland because the majority of the people, who identify themselves as British, want it there and strongly reject Irish unity. It is there because states do not expel territory occupied by its own nationals, and because withdrawal without a political settlement would lead to Protestant-Catholic civil war for the redivision of the Six Counties.
It is the Irish minority that is the stumbling block to Irish unity, not Britain. Ireland remains partitioned because Irish unity and independence have been rendered incompatible and contradictory by the division of the people of Ireland into a minority whose accepted national identity is British and those who proclaim an Irish-Ireland identity.
British rule in the Six Counties is not imperialism in any Marxist sense of the word. Britain does not gain financially, it pays: £2 billion per year. If, in the days of the Cold War, Northern Ireland had military-strategic value for Britain or NATO, it was paid for by the loss of the rest of Ireland which would have had even greater military-strategic value.
26-county foreign policy was, in protest against partition, a pro-West neutralism throughout the Second World War and the Cold War.
The 26 year old war in Northern Ireland erupted because:
i. the forced, British-controlled “settlement” effected between Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants left over half a million Catholics without self-determination cut them off from the independent Irish state with which they feel most affinity and subjected them, even in the large areas of the Six Counties where they are the majority, to second-class citizenship;
ii. there existed in Ireland in the 1960s a political tradition of physical-force-on-principle “Republican” politics, embodied in an organisation, and nourished by a widely accepted Catholic-Nationalist culture which was the official ideology of the 26 County state.
The IRA, guided by fixed tradition, used the Catholic civil rights movement as an occasion to deploy its own physical-force-on-principle methods. It thereby fixed even more firmly Protestant resolve to resist a United Ireland.
The IRA war is on the ground primarily a war against Irish Protestant-Unionists who back and serve their state, the British state, in Northern Ireland. Its methods — for example, killing Protestant workers who do such jobs as fixing the lights in a police station — have been the methods of sectarian-communal war at an early stage. That is one reason why we say that the IRA is more the heir of the AOH than of Tone, Connolly or Pearse.
The IRA invokes the age-old Irish struggle for self-determination. It does struggle for Six Counties Catholic self-determination. But this is not the age-old Irish fight for freedom.
It fights for a “united Ireland” in which the Six Counties Protestants — approximately one million of the five and a half million on the island — would, against their will, be sub-merged. It would, in other words, swap the present situation where half a million Northern Ireland Catholics are kept against their will in the Six Counties state for one in which one million Protestants would be forced against their will into a Catholic state.
Therefore, the IRA war can not be defined as primarily a just struggle for Six-Counties Catholic self-determination: it is simultaneously a war to deny self-determination to one million Irish Protestant-Unionists.
Once “in” a united Ireland, they would have to be kept in by as much force as necessary — just as the Catholic Six Counties minority was kept in by force. There would be neither progress nor lasting solution in such a “solution”.
The Irish Catholic majority would, then, like the Six Counties Protestants after 1921, find themselves with the dilemma defined by Marx: a nation which enslaves others can not itself be free.
i. The IRA war can not be defined in any socialist, Marxist or Wolfe Tone Republican sense as a progressive anti-imperialist war.
ii. It is not and cannot ever be a war for Irish unity: Irish unity can not be won by the coercion of war. If the IRA had gained its initial objective of forcing a British withdrawal the certain result would have been Catholic-Protestant civil war to redivide the Six Counties, and then still two, reshaped, Irish states.
iii. Everything the IRA does and advocates points not to a United Ireland, not to something better for Catholics or Protestants than the reality of Northern Ireland now, but to something far worse — civil war on the Bosnian model, and bloody repartition.
Ireland’s only possible revolution
There is no revolutionary nationalist solution to the present Irish problem — no solution based on the forcible overthrowing of existing institutions. It is not that sort of problem. Between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants there is a conflict of right against right. Progress is not possible except by agreement between the Irish majority and the Irish Protestant minority. There only possible constructive revolution in Ireland is the socialist revolution!
IRA rule by arbitrary and often very brutal direct physical force in the Catholic ‘ghettos’ is regressive. It is not more progressive than the rule there of the agencies of a bourgeois-democratic state, which upholds at least the pretence, and normally even in the Six Counties some degree of the practice, of rule by law under bourgeois civil liberties.
The majority of Catholics, though they want major changes in the RUC, back the SDLP and reject IRA ghetto-rule, as well as rejecting the IRA’s counter-productive sectarian war.
The IRA have no right that socialists or Wolfe Tone republicans can accept to wage war.
They have the support of a big minority in the Catholic parts of Northern Ireland — but only of a minority. In southern Irish elections, Provisional Sinn Fein gets no more than 1.5% of the vote.
The idea is preposterous that either the fundamental situation in Ireland, or the situation faced by Northern Irish Catholics, or the IRA’s level of — exclusively Catholic — support, gives them the right to make war. The idea that progress in Ireland can be won by murdering Protestants is deeply hostile both to the letter and the spirit of genuine Irish Republicanism.
The IRA/Sinn Fein is entirely without a coherent strategy. No coherent strategy for achieving what they want could ever be extrapolated from their military campaign, as it must be so extrapolated while that campaign goes on, overshadowing all else.
The IRA calls for Britain to leave — but first to disarm the Protestants. That is the contradiction at the heart of this so-called “Republicanism” which is really Catholic communalism. It “solves” the central problem for old-style Catholic Irish nationalism — the opposition of one million Irish Protestants to a united Ireland — by trying to force Britain to coerce Protestants into a United Ireland! This is IRA “strategy” — malignant fantasies.
These Irish “Republicans”, talking of a united Ireland, yet feel free to wage a campaign of widespread murder against Ireland’s minority people because, ultimately, they look not to Wolfe Tone’s Republican goal of a voluntary unity of the people of Ireland but to Britain which they hope will coerce the Protestants for them! Theirs is the political psychology of the trapped Catholic minority in places like Belfast, who cannot ever hope to gain their objectives with their own forces alone.
There is no British solution. A solution can only be forged by the divided people of Ireland. Were Britain to do what the IRA wants, it would not be a solution but another permutation, a rearrangement of the elements, in a continuing conflict of national identities and radically incompatible objectives. Those who advocate a British solution — even the fantastic IRA version of a British solution — are not republicans. Those are not republicans who reject the root idea of the secular Irish politics that began with Wolfe Tone — that the whole people of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant alike, are equal and have equal rights, however they choose to exercise them.
The Six Counties state as it now exists is untenable, a savage bearpit for all its people. A broader framework, all-Ireland at least, is needed. A federal Ireland, with minority rights of self-government for the Protestant-majority area, and closer, confederal links between Britain and Ireland, is now the only possible framework that could replace the present failed Six Counties experiment.
It is the only “constitutional settlement” that both Catholic and Protestant workers in Ireland could subscribe to, respecting each others’ rights, and building working-class unity in the process.
The idea of mutual agreement, and of mutual guarantees against present or future oppression is a necessary part of the socialist programme. Unless socialists provide a democratic and socialist answer, now, to the “constitutional questions” that divide the workers, workers will continue to accept the answers of the Green and Orange bourgeois and petty-bourgeois factions.
“In so far as national peace is in anyway possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making and strife it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government… the constituion of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one national and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority.
This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population etc." - 1913 Resolution of the Bolshevik Party Central Committee.
The solution to poverty, unemployment, forced emigration and violence in Ireland is socialism. Only a united working class can win socialism. Therefore, the prime immediate objective of socialists regarding Ireland is to foster whatever promotes, or might promote, working class unity, and to spurn and condemn all that stands in its way, whether it be the IRA/Sinn Fein that falsely claims to represent the Republican and Republican-socialist revolutionary tradition in Ireland, or Paisleyism.
“Ireland as distinct from her people, is nothing to me: and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for 'Ireland', and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation brought upon the people of Ireland – yea, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements he is pleased to call Ireland.” -
* Frederick Engels noted this change at the time, though it is something that many Marxists fail to notice even today, especially when discussing Ireland.
** In 1932 the newly elected De Valera government refused to continue paying to the British Exchequer the peasants’ yearly payments — the “Land Annuities” — which the Dublin government had undertaken to collect and forward when the Free State was set up in 1922. Britain was Ireland’s main customer for cattle, its main export, and it responded by banning the importation of Irish beef. The so-called Irish-British economic war followed. It was settled by an agreement in 1938: Eire paid a lump sum to Britain; Britain evacuated its last naval bases in the 26 Counties.
* Going to Lancashire from Mayo as a child, Davitt at the age of 11 lost an arm in the wheels of a machine in a cotton factory; and later he spent seven years in jail, under savage conditions, for Fenian activity. He regarded himself as part of the international labour movement and, despite differences, had very friendly links with the British Marxists (though James Connolly criticised him bitterly for serving the middle-class Home Rule Party in Ireland instead of building an independent political labour movement there).
* There had in history been much interconnection and migration between north-east Ulster and Scotland, which are separated by only a few miles of water. There was long ago a kingdom which straddled parts of Scotland and parts of Ulster — Dalriada. Scotland gets its name from Irish settlers, called Scots.
* For an account of it in one area, see David Fitzpatrick’s study of Clare in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
**There is a better known, rough parallel in the rise of Sinhalese chauvinism in post-independence Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
***James Connolly commented that it spread its tentacles throughout Ireland like a lethal disease, promoting and profiting from sectarianism and making existing divisions unbridgeable. Irish Freedom, the journal of the Irish Republican Brotherhood of Patrick Pearse, made similar comments on the AOH. There exists a massive Marxist literature describing this. No other collection of Marxist literature expresses so concentrated a working-class hate and loathing as James Connolly’s journalistic comments after 1898 on the entire political-religious culture of the Catholic-sectarian Home Rule movement, which Devlin’s AOH systematised and unashamedly organised. Much of it is in the first Workers’ Republic (1898-1903). Most of it remains unreprinted, and almost none of Connolly’s week by week comments on Home Rule politics. Desmond Ryan deserves credit for the three volume collection of James Connolly’s articles — published with ITGWU backing between 1947 and 1951 — from which all the one volume collections except that of Edwards and Ransome are more or less entirely culled. You get an idea of James Connolly’s hatred of the AOH and of Home Rule politics from Ryan’ collection, but some of Connolly’s most “offensive” comments have been cut from articles printed by Ryan, a line here, a line there, without acknowledgement. The Home Rule Party was, after 1914, discredited in nationalist terms. Without his journalistic comments on the whole Hibernian-Nationalist political culture, James Connolly seems to merely link up with the post-independence nationalist received wisdom on the Home Rule Party. The point is that much of the culture Connolly loathed and railed at survived in post-independence Ireland — only with James Connolly alongside Wolfe Tone and Emmett and Pearse as one of its political icons. In the unrepublished journalism James Connolly was most at odds with official post-independence Ireland’s political culture. By contrast, Connolly’s parallel loathing-filled comments on the bigoted Orange political-religious culture have been lovingly collected, as if for Connolly they were the sole or main sectarian roots of the partition which he opposed. (See for example the one-sided selection of articles and excerpts from articles put out by the Catholic-sectarian, Maoist-populist, God-knows-what-ist “Republicans” of the Cork Workers’ Club, under the title “Ireland Upon the Dissecting Table.”)
**** It was one of James Connolly’s reasons in 1916 for believing that England would not “keep faith” on the Home Rule Bill. Put on the statute book in 1914, it was “suspended”, first “for a year” and then, until the end of the war. The shift was grotesquely symbolised in the trial of Roger Casement after the Easter Rising: the chief prosecutor was FE Smith, Lord Chancellor of the UK, who had been one of the chief Tory organisers of the rebellion against the Liberal government in 1914! Roger Casement was hanged in July 1916.
**See, for example, “Against the Tide” the memoirs of a socialist former Minister of Health Dr Noel Brown.
*** It has allied with socialist, Stalinist, and fascist organisations and states — with Hitler’s Germany during World War 2 for example — in the quest for allies against Britain and the Northern Irish Unionists.