Connolly and the Unionists

Submitted by AWL on 27 July, 2016 - 12:48 Author: Michael Johnson

Part nine of Michael Johnson’s series on the life and politics of James Connolly. The rest of the series can be found here.


The prospect of the Third Home Rule Bill sparked a widespread mobilisation of Ulster Unionists in opposition to the measure, backed to the hilt by the Tory establishment who hoped to use Ulster to defeat Home Rule for Ireland as a whole.

Connolly’s perspective after 1910 was that Home Rule was inevitable and that workers needed an independent Irish Labour Party to provide opposition to the Irish Nationalists in a future Home Rule Parliament. As late as 1913 he remained optimistic, if not sanguine, about the possibilities, writing that “with the advent of Home Rule, nay even with the promise of Home Rule and the entrance of Ireland upon the normal level of civilised, self-governing nations, the old relation of Protestant and Catholic begins to melt and dissolve, and with their dissolution will come a new change in the relation of either faith to politics. The loss of its privileged position will mean for Protestantism the possibilities of an immense spiritual uplifting; an emergence into a knowledge of its kinship with its brothers and sisters of different creeds.”

However, Connolly failed to understand the depth of Unionist opposition to Home Rule, diagnosing it as “a dying cause of Orange ascendancy”. In a May 1911 article in Forward advocating the unity of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) in anticipation of Home Rule, Connolly wrote that the “Irish landlords who had indeed something to fear from a Home Rule Parliament elected largely by tenant farmers, as would have been the case in the past… are now politically indifferent”, asserting that “there is no economic class in Ireland today whose interests as a class are bound up with the Union.”

This analysis failed to note that much of the opposition came not from the aristocracy but from the Ulster bourgeoisie whose shipbuilding and engineering concerns had their markets throughout the British Empire, and from the Ulster Protestant working class. Nor was Protestant opposition to Home Rule explicable in narrowly economic terms. That almost the whole of Protestant society in the north-east of Ireland was prepared to resist Home Rule pointed to an uncomfortable fact for Irish nationalists: that the compact majority of Ulster Protestants in the four north-eastern — most counties by the early twentieth century saw themselves as a distinct Protestant-British people who were not at one with the rest of Ireland.

This Ulster Protestant population had its original roots, of course, in the Plantation of the early 17th century, and Connolly captures something of this settler-colonial psychology, writing in Forward of 3 May 1913 of that: “Protestant elements of Ireland were, in the main, a plantation of strangers upon the soil from which the owners had been dispossessed by force. The economic dispossession was, perforce, accompanied by a political and social outlawry. Hence every attempt of the dispossessed to attain citizenship, to emerge from their state of outlawry, was easily represented as a tentative step towards reversing the plantation and towards replanting the Catholic and dispossessing the Protestant.”

Connolly, however, was clear to point out in The Re-Conquest of Ireland in 1915 that: “the Protestant common soldier or settler, now that the need of his sword was passed, found himself upon the lands of the Catholic, it is true, but solely as a tenant and dependant. The ownership of the province was not in his hands, but in the hands of the companies of London merchants who had supplied the sinews of war for the English armies, or, in the hands of the greedy aristocrats and legal cormorants who had schemed and intrigued while he had fought.”

He summed up the situation as “the Catholic dispossessed by force, the Protestant dispossessed by fraud. Each hating and blaming the other, a situation which the dominant aristocracy knew well how, as their descendants know to-day, to profit by to their own advantage.” Moreover, Connolly did not assume that historical roots of the Ulster Protestants implied an immutable identity. As an organiser for the ITGWU Connolly had organised Protestant and Catholic workers together in Belfast from 1911 onwards, and with some success. One high-point during the 1911 dock strike was the”‘Non-Sectarian Labour Band” which united workers across the religious divide.

Writing in August 1914, Connolly reflected on the potential turning point of the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798: “For a brief period during the closing years of the eighteenth century, it did indeed seem probable that the common disabilities of Presbyterians and Catholics would unite them all under the common name of Irishmen. Hence the rebel society of that time took the significant name of ‘United Irishmen’.

“In the 1798 rebellion, the advanced Protestant bourgeoisie, many of them Presbyterian, led a largely Catholic movement to secure Irish independence. Influenced by the American and French Revolutions, the United Irishmen aimed, in the words of Wolfe Tone, “to unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.”

However, the rebellion failed and Ireland was incorporated into the United Kingdom by the 1800 Act of Union. In the following decades, the discriminatory laws which had bound Catholics and dissenting Protestants together in mutual persecution were removed. Yet, as Connolly wrote: “…the removal of the religious disabilities from the dissenting community had, as its effect, the obliteration of all political difference between the sects and their practical political unity under the common designation of Protestants, as against the Catholics, upon whom the fetters of religious disability still clung.”

With the consolidation of Anglican and Presbyterians under the banner of Protestantism also came the mobilisation of the Catholic peasantry for the demand of Catholic Emancipation and Repeal of the Act of Union, led by the nationalist lawyer Daniel O’Connell and by the priests, supplanting the secular republicanism of the previous period. Ulster Unionism The Protestant bloc was welded closer together in the Unionist resistance to the successive Home Rule Bills after 1886. As one historian of Unionism, Peter Gibbon writes: “In this resistance, Unionism progressively consolidated its base, developed a forceful rhetoric, founded a party machine and united almost the entire population of Ulster behind its banner.”

The movement soon took concrete form. On 17 June 1892, an Ulster Convention was held in Belfast for the purpose of “the elaboration of the qualities purportedly distinguishing Ulster from the rest of Ireland.” In 1905, in response to a number of southern Unionists softening their position on Irish self-administration, the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) was formed, bringing together MPs, peers, local Unionist clubs and branches of the Orange Order. By the late nineteenth century, a distinct Ulster Protestant identity was emerging and became interlaced with the uneven development of capitalism in Ireland which produced a more advanced urban north-east in the rest of the largely agricultural island.

Due to Ulster’s economic development, the skilled Protestant working-class formed a higher strata than their largely unskilled Catholic co-workers. Through craft unions and the semi-Masonic Orange Order, Protestant workers were incorporated into cross-class alliance with the Protestant bourgeoisie and aristocracy. Connolly caught one side of the question with his comment in his article ‘Sweatshops Behind the Orange Flag’ in March 1911 that the “question of Home Government, the professional advocacy of it, and the professional opposition to it, is the greatest asset in the hands of reaction in Ireland, the never-failing decoy to lure the workers into the bogs of religious hatreds and social stagnation.”

However, Henry Patterson has qualified this view of Orange ideology simply as “an ideology which emphasises the common interest of employers and workers as Protestants threatened by Catholic power.” In his Class Conflict and Sectarianism: The Protestant Working Class and the Belfast Labour Movement 1868-1920, Patterson argues that Orange ideology “was not simply the productive of class peace. It also provided the main categories by which certain limited forms of class conflict could be expressed.” It functioned, therefore, “both as an integrative mechanism and as a source of conflict.”

This accounts for the prevalence of Orangeism in certain Belfast trade unions, as well as the phenomenon of the Independent Orange Order aligned to sections of the Belfast labour movement in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. As class conflict it was severely limited in that it was highly exclusionary against Catholic workers, and thus divided the working-class. Moreover, it rarely recognised the class struggle between workers and capital. Instead, it was a “militant populism which expressed class conflict in terms of upper-class ‘betrayal’ of the Protestant cause.” But in the absence of a strong socialist movement in Ireland, Orange ideology had played an important role in shaping the culture and outlook of the Ulster labour movement.

As Lenin put it in another context: “To say that ideologists (conscious leaders) cannot divert from its path the movement created by the interaction of the environment and the (material) elements is to ignore the elementary truth that consciousness participates in this interaction and creation. Catholic labour unions are also the inevitable result of the interaction of the environment and the material elements. The difference, however, is that it was the consciousness of priests... and not that of socialists that participated in this interaction.”

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, therefore, the prevalence of Orange ideology within the Protestant working-class was not simply a brittle and atavistic settler-colonial hang-on which could easily be shoved aside, but a phenomenon with deeper roots. It defied optimistic Second International predictions of the growth of working-class consciousness under capitalism, as Connolly himself pointed out in 1913: “According to all Socialist theories North-East Ulster, being the most developed industrially, ought to be the quarter in which class lines of cleavage, politically industrially, should be the most pronounced and class rebellion the most common. As a cold matter of fact, it is the happy hunting ground of the slave driver and the home of the least rebellious slaves in the industrial world.”

It was partly on the basis of this divergence that Connolly argued for the necessity of an independent Irish labour movement and an Irish Labour Party. He argued that “the historical backgrounds of the movement in England and Ireland are so essentially different that the Irish Socialist movement can only be truly served by a party indigenous to the soil, and explained by a literature having the same source: that the phrases and watchwords which might serve to express the soul of the movement in one country may possibly stifle its soul and suffocate its expression in the other. “One great need of the movement in Ireland is a literature of its very own”, Connolly wrote; literature which would show “how and why it is that the doctrine that because the workers of Belfast live under the same industrial conditions as do those of Great Britain, they are therefore subject to the same passions and to be influenced by the same methods of propaganda, is a doctrine almost screamingly funny in its absurdity.”

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