A consensus reached by this new school is that the 1920-21 partition of Ireland was a product of ‘natural’, historically established, divisions, that it was inevitable from the mid-nineteenth century or earlier and that British imperialism played only the neutral role of an arbiter in the whole affair.
Divide and Rule (Militant booklet on partition by the author), written nearly twenty years ago, mainly as a challenge to the simplified, romanticised picture painted by nationalists, has already answered these arguments. But in the struggle to develop revolutionary ideas, theoretical ground which was conquered in the past has very often to be conquered again. Without repeating all the main points of Divide and Rule it is necessary to re-examine and re-clarify this period by dealing with the new arguments which have come up.
This is not a merely academic exercise. The answers to the questions how and why partition came about shape both our attitude to the national question today and the programme we put forward to deal with it.
If, for example, we accept that imperialism played an essentially benign role, and that the division between Irish people made partition unavoidable, in effect that there existed or were coming into existence two nations in Ireland, we then give an historical justification to the two states which emerged.
In that case the desire felt by people in the South for eventual re-unification could not be seen as an anti-imperialist sentiment, a desire to undo a crime perpetrated by imperialism. It becomes a desire, at bottom an imperialist sentiment, to have control over the territory of another people, over a separate nation.
Even the most false theories can be bedded on a seam of truth. Militant Labour has never held the view, which is the tenor of some nationalist accounts, that imperialism conjured partition up out of nothing, duping one section of the Irish people with a slight of hand and then coercing the other.
Partition did have historical roots – in the divisions which emerged in the period of ebb of the national struggle after the defeat of the ’98 rising. These divisions were deliberately fostered and encouraged by imperialism whenever it suited them to do so, in 1798 and after, in order to weaken and divide the opposition to their rule.
These divisions laid the basis for partition in that they made it possible, but not inevitable. That is one seam of the argument, one side of the truth. The other side, which is now being challenged or ignored by the pro-unionist school, is that partition itself, in its concrete historical setting, was carried through by imperialism to suit its own ends. The idea of British imperialism as benign arbiters is pure invention. As with the commander of the northern British garrison, General Lake’s order in 1798 that every government militia should have an Orange Lodge within it, and as with all subsequent attempts by British politicians to beat the Orange drum, partition was brought about in pursuit of a policy of ‘Divide and Rule’.
Only this complex all-sided approach explains what took place in the nineteenth century, in the first part of this century and helps throw light on the national question today.
The ’98 rebellion was the first and the last attempt by the emerging Irish capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, to lead a movement for independence. From the moment of its defeat, this class, weak both economically and politically, withdrew from the national struggle. Their only subsequent role was to obstruct and betray every new movement.
The larger capitalists, as they developed, threw in their lot, psychologically and in every practical sense, with their British counterparts The rising northern capitalists and those in Dublin, bound themselves by ties of kith and kin, of military service in helping hold those ‘other colonies’ in subjection, as well as ties of money and self-interest, to the British capitalist class.
The Irish bourgeoisie were never again a unifying factor capable of drawing other strata behind them. They could play no progressive role in unifying a national movement or helping develop a national consciousness.
If the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution – the distribution of land, extension of the franchise to break the political monopoly of the old aristocracy, and the consolidation of a nation state – were now to be carried through; it would have to be by some other class.
Such capitalist development as took place in Ireland in the nineteenth century was uneven. By the end of the century the main concentration of industry, apart from agriculture related and food processing industries was in the north-east corner around Belfast.
First a cotton industry developed in Belfast and other towns such as Lisburn and Bangor. It was spurred on by the mechanical spinning techniques of the industrial revolution, but, after 1824, when the tariffs which protected Irish cotton from British competition were lifted, it declined.
Mills began to be adapted to flax spinning instead of cotton. By the 1850s flax and linen were triumphant and little remained of the old cotton mills. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the cotton mills of Lancashire were starved of their raw materials and fell idle. Belfast linen took the place of their goods on the world market and the industry boomed.
By the end of the decade Belfast, with 9,000 power looms had become the linen centre of the world. Vast wealth was accrued by the new capitalist lords of linen.
An engineering industry producing industrial machinery developed alongside linen. Shipbuilding had been carried out in Belfast from the late eighteenth century when the first two small yards were set up. It underwent a massive expansion in the latter part of the nineteenth century with new yards and a huge increase in output – up from 20,000 gross tons in 1881 to 200,000 by 1912.
These industrialists looked to Britain and to markets beyond. When the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was raised they reacted with alarm. Their interests were not those of small-scale producers in other parts of the country who sought a protected Irish market. For them tariffs would mean a wall blocking off both the supply of raw materials and the access of their products to British, European and US markets.
The linen bosses were among those who put themselves forward as stout defenders of the interests of ‘Ulster and its people’ during the resistance to Home Rule. The real interest they were defending was their own.
In the flax mills the ‘linen slaves of Belfast’, as James Connolly called them, could have told a different story. The linen lords and other capitalists had never had any regard for the interests of those of the ‘Ulster people’ who spun their flax, wove their linen and created all the wealth they used to toast ‘their’ achievements.
Conditions in the mills of this linenopolis were a blight on the face of the city. Children as young as eight slaved at the looms. The ever-present clouds of dust fibres destroyed their lungs. In the 1870s the average working life in the flax preparing areas was 16.8 years. There were strikes – as in 1874 when 43 mills employing Protestant and Catholic struck against a ten per cent wage cut – but the linen bosses managed to prevent union organisation right through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
Self-interest caused the large capitalists of Ireland, especially of the north-east, to line up with the old aristocracy who were opposed both to land reform and Home Rule, and launch the Unionist movement of the late nineteenth century.
There had long been divisions between Catholic and Protestant tenants in rural areas. These had been whipped up by the landlords with the help of institutions such as the Orange Order. Founded in 1795, it began as a minority movement among Protestants, based on the descendants of English settlers, not on the Presbyterians and dissenters. In the early part of the nineteenth century it remained a tool of the landlords and was used to mobilise opposition not only to Catholic emancipation, but to the 1832 reform act which extended the franchise and did away with the pocket boroughs through which the landowners dominated parliament. It was anathema to forward-looking Protestants like Jemmy Hope, who in his memoirs commented:
“The character of the Orange Lodges was such, that no man who had any regard for his character would appear in them.” 
Orangeism remained a largely rural affair although in country areas its sectarian message was by no means unchallenged. The United Irishmen had shown how Catholic and Protestant tenants could stand united in defence of their common interests. In the towns relations were generally good. In 1794 when the first Catholic church, St. Mary’s, opened in Belfast, the Belfast Volunteers, forerunners of the United Irishmen, paraded and formed a guard of honour for the arrival of the priest for the first mass.
It was not until the 1830s that signs of the sectarian divisions which were to be a key factor in Belfast’s history began to appear. Fundamentalist Presbyterian preachers, Henry Cooke notable among them, began from this time to preach a gospel of anti-Catholic sectarianism, very different from the doctrines which had been put forward by the United Irishmen.
With rural migration to Belfast its Catholic population grew. 1843-9 saw famine devastate rural Ireland – the destitution, starvation and de-population brought about more by landlordism than the potato blight. Ulster was not as badly affected as the south-west, but its rural counties, particularly Cavan, Monaghan, Tyrone and Armagh did suffer. Many impoverished, starving and mainly Catholic tenants from these areas moved to Belfast hoping to find relief and work in this, the industrial centre of Ireland. By 1850 one third of the population were Catholic and it had a distinct sectarian geography.
Appalling living conditions and increased competition for work raised sectarian tensions. Skilled workers were mainly Protestants. In the shipyards and engineering factories they were paid wages akin to similar trades in Britain, far more than the unskilled who had no union organisation.
Inevitably there was craft conservatism, a desire to preserve skills, protect trades and be able to hand on the unionised and better-paid jobs to their families. Very often this translated into sectarianism as workers in various trades opposed skilled jobs going to Catholics.
Sectarian riots took place in Belfast in 1857, in 1864 and at various times over the following two decades. Catholic shipyard workers found themselves intimidated by Protestant shipwrights – the percentage of Catholic workers in Belfast’s shipyards fell in the last decades of the century.
When, in 1911, the aristocrats and capitalists of the Ulster Unionist Council, financed and assisted by every shade of reactionary on the conservative wing of the British establishment, launched their crusade against Home Rule, many working class Protestants aligned themselves with this resistance.
All of this would seem to confirm the nationalist picture of Protestants as concerned only with protecting their craft privileges and as easy dupes of their masters. Those of the pro-union school would say no, these things demonstrate the separate line of development, present through history, which was leading the northern or Protestant (take your pick) ‘nation’ towards a separate state.
Both explanations are wrong. They leave out two things. One: that a key reason for the pro-union attitude of the Protestant masses was the narrowing of the nationalist movement to the point where it could have no appeal to them. Second: even in the midst of all this backwardness and confusion a new unity of Catholic and Protestant was being prepared which, if it could reach its fruition, had the potential to dwarf even the majestic movement of 1798.
’98 had been fought for independence and for an improvement in the material lot of the people. The unity displayed at that time was based on a coming together of the national and the social interests of the Irish people against landlordism and against colonial domination.
The rise of the United Irishmen represented the victory of revolutionary ideas over those of constitutional reformers such as Grattan whose methods had become discredited. The following century saw the reverse – the domination of the national movement by constitutionalists and reformers rather than by its radical and revolutionary wing.
The radicals – among them the towering figure of Michael Davitt – took the struggle against landlordism as their starting point. In the hands of its more conservative wing the national movement was purified of its social content. The very factor which united Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in 1798 was jettisoned.
This degeneration of nationalism in the hands of its most ‘eminent’ parliamentary champions began in the 1840s with Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Act of Union. O’Connell was for limited independence, not separation. On social questions he was conservative. His idea of land reform was that the landlords, from whose stock he came, should treat their tenants well. When elected to the British parliament he resolutely opposed the Chartist uprising. He denounced early Irish trade unions as too militant and the cause of the decline of industry in Dublin. Given his leadership of the Catholic Association during the battle for Catholic emancipation, it was easy for demagogic Presbyterians like Henry Cooke to caricature the Repeal movement as being out for Catholics only.
After O’Connell the other major parliamentary campaigners for Home Rule continued in the same vein. John Redmond, who straddled the centuries as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was a landlord, defended landlordism and also adopted a conservative stance on social questions.
In 1910 a Liberal government led by Lord Asquith came to power. Because it was dependent on the votes of the Redmondites, Home Rule, as the price for this backing, seemed on the cards. Asquith’s Liberals were greeted by a wave of struggles by the working class demanding concessions. In 1911 it was forced to give way and introduce a programme of social legislation. Redmond strongly opposed the extension of this legislation to Ireland insisting that a Home Rule parliament would not be able to afford it.
At best Home Rule as put forward by such people meant only the same penury, the same exploitation but administered by different faces. To Protestant workers it seemed worse than this. It was clear to them that gains which were being secured by the British working class would not be applied by a parliament of Redmondite landowners and of small business interests from the less-developed southern areas. Tariffs put up to assist these interests would threaten their export-orientated jobs. So long as the Home Rule formula equalled the same but worse there was no way they would support it. Such backing as sections of the Protestant working class gave to the lords and ladies of Unionism, was in large part given to retain their connections with the British working class whose struggles and achievements seemed to offer the best hope for the future.
It was not possible on the basis of capitalism and certainly not of landlordism to frame a new national movement which was genuinely broad in its appeal. Stripped of its social content, Irish nationalism could not unite all of the oppressed, irrespective of religion. Inevitably it tended to narrow, to degenerate, and to represent itself as Catholic nationalism – never the same thing.
This is the down-side of the history of the time. It is the only side picked upon by the modern pro-union school. Writing at a time of sectarian conflict and a low point in the class struggle their approach to history is to pick out every similar low point as the norm and ignore or down play all else. Just in fact as those of their ilk writing about the recent Troubles can see only a catalogue of sectarian events and have written out the working class or the labour movement as even a player.
There was another side to events pre-partition. The capitulation by the Irish capitalists to British rule after 1798 meant that the unfinished tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution were left to be completed by others. At the end of the nineteenth and in the first decades of the twentieth century a class emerged which was capable of doing this – the working class. It had the capacity to create a new unity of Catholic and Protestant, to complete what was left undone by the capitalists, not as a gift to this class, but in the course of carrying out its own historic mission, the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of a socialist society.
7. Jemmy Hope, op. cit., p. 16.
Last updated: 4.1.2011