Paul Foot

Dividing Ireland

(July-August 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.111, July-August 1988, pp.21-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Why are Catholics fighting Protestants in Northern Ireland? Why indeed is it the only place in the world where Catholics are fighting Protestants? Paul Foot looks back to the root of the problem – the partition of Ireland and the role Britain played in the creation of Northern Ireland.

THE REALITY of human existence in Ireland over the last few centuries has been dominated by the British Empire. Ireland is the oldest colony in that empire. Marx summed up the nature of that long imperial rule in a single sentence:

“England has never ruled Ireland in any other way, and cannot rule it in any other way, except by the most hideous reign of terror and the most revolting corruption.” Four hundred years ago Ireland was “planted” with colonists loyal to the British crown. Under the cover of the Protestant religion, armed and equipped by the most powerful force on earth, these colonists made Ireland safe for British landlords. The Irish population was kept in order by consistent and ruthless violence.

The fervour of the colonists’ Protestantism rose and fell according to the rise and fall of the Irish resistance. The Orange Order was set up in 1795. Its founding declaration described it as “a barrier to revolution and an obstacle to compromise”. It was formed to meet the growing Irish resistance of the 1790s, which included many dissident Protestants. The Orange Order was a powerful force in the smashing by Britain of the Great Rebellion of 1798.

As the counter-revolution succeeded, so the Orange Order lost its purpose. It was wound up in 1836 and lay dormant for nearly fifty years. When it was revived again, in 1885, a new threat to British rule had emerged – the battle for Home Rule.

The notion of an independent Ireland horrified whole sections of the British landed aristocracy and the Tory Party. Lord Randolph Churchill summed up the tactics of his class in Ireland with his famous decision to “play the Orange card. Let us hope it turns out the ace and not the two.” By whipping up Protestants’ belief in their superiority because of their religion, the unity of the Irish people could be dealt a death blow, and the landlords and capitalists would continue to hold the reins.

The Home Rule Bills introduced by the Liberals in the 1880s were defeated by a combination of the Tory Party and the old “Whig” landowning section of the Liberals.

But in 1910 there were two elections with almost exactly the same result. They left the Irish Nationalists holding the balance in parliament and able to demand of the Liberals a Home Rule Bill which would grant Ireland independence. In exchange they offered Irish votes for other parts of the Liberal programme.

UNEASILY the Liberals published their Home Rule Bill. It promulgated Home Rule for all Ireland. No one had ever thought that Home Rule could mean anything else. In 1912, however, the imperialists, landlords and capitalists played the Orange card once more.

An obscure Liberal MP called Agar-Roberts put down an amendment to exclude from the Home Rule Bill the whole of Ulster, the northernmost of the four ancient provinces of Ireland.

Effectively this meant that Home Rule could be achieved by Catholics in three quarters of Ireland, while Protestants would stay part of Britain in the other quarter.

The standard of Ulster was raised by Edward Carson, a Liberal and Southern Irish Protestant who had made a name for himself at the bar (not least in the persecution of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality).

He understood that the division of Ireland, with one half in Britain, the other out, would immeasurably weaken the whole impact of Home Rule. He argued on two lines.

The first was financial. The figures about the development of capitalism in the two parts of Ireland at that time spoke for themselves. In 1907, for instance, the value of all manufactured goods exported from Ireland was £20.9 million. Nearly 95 percent of manufacturing industry was concentrated in and around the burgeoning city of Belfast. With this area safe in the Imperial Free Trade area, the only substantial profits of British capitalists in Ireland would be secure.

The second argument, which sprang from the first, dealt with what Carson called “the labour problem”. The years 1911 to 1913 in Britain were marked by great labour agitations, huge strikes on railways, on the docks and in the pits.

Carson showed that in the areas of Ireland where Protestants felt themselves to be in the ascendant, labour agitation was curbed. If workers could be persuaded to look for their salvation to their religion and not to their class, the prospects for employers were immeasurably improved.

Protestants had to feel better, superior, but if they lived in a statelet where everyone was a Protestant, how could they feel themselves better than anyone else?

The new state, therefore, had not only to be predominantly Protestant, it had to include numbers of Catholics who could play the pan of the underdogs; the permanent victims of discrimination.

This led to some argument among the new Ulster movement. How many counties should be in the new British enclave they all wanted? The nine counties envisaged by the Agar-Roberts amendment had too brittle a Protestant majority (only 100,000 or so out of nearly one and three quarter million). It was obviously unsafe. A slight change in the birth rate could destroy the Protestant majority.

On the other hand the four counties of the north east (Derry, Armagh, Down and Antrim), though their Protestant majority was unshakeable, were too small in size and in its Catholic population to look viable as a separate state. A compromise between the two was needed. Carson favoured a new “Ulster” of six counties in which the predominantly Catholic counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone were added to the four’ ‘safe’’ Protestant ones. This still left a vast Protestant majority (about three to two). It ensured a decent land area and a sizeable population of about 600,000 Catholics who could permanantly play second fiddle to the million Protestants.

AFTER SETTLING their differences on the size of the new British statelet they wanted in Ireland, Carson and the Tories started a furious campaign which lasted through most of 1912, all of 1913 and 1914 until the outbreak of the First World War.

The most extraordinary feature of this campaign was its utter contempt for parliament and the law.

Grand old parliamentarians though Carson and the Tory leaders were, they were quick to scoff at the supremacy of parliament when the integrity of their empire and the size of their profits were at stake.

Bonar Law, the Tory leader, told a massive meeting at Blenheim Palace:

“There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities ... I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support them...”

These words soon turned into guns as Ulster Volunteers were armed in huge numbers to fight against the will of parliament. The army was openly incited by the Tories and the Carsonites to refuse to intervene.

Fifty eight officers at the Curragh signed a statement effectively refusing to take up arms against Protestant Ulster. They were supported by their general and chief of operations. They were immediately promised by the Liberal Secretary of State for War that the government had “no intention to crush political opposition to the Home Rule Bill”.

The gun running went on and the Volunteers enormously increased in fire power and in confidence.

The Liberals, however, still depended for their office on the Irish Nationalists. In 1912 and even in 1913 the Nationalists were absolutely adamant that they would not concede a single county in their demand for Home Rule.

John Redmond, the Nationalist leader, made his position quite plain in a speech on 11 April 1912:

“The idea of two nations in Ireland is revolting and hateful. The idea of our agreeing to the partition of our nation is unthinkable.”

BY THE BEGINNING of 1914, however, Redmond and the Nationalist leadership were agreeing to the unthinkable nullificiation of all their hopes and aspirations. They were negotiating partition of their homeland.

How could that be? They had the votes to throttle the Liberal government. They had the support for Home Rule for all Ireland from the vast majority of the Irish people.

Yet they were in essence nervous and “practical” politicians. They did not want a war before they could take up their seats of government in their own country. After all, they argued, surely half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.

Against this “common sense”, “practical” approach was raised in Ireland another voice which argued in terms of class, the voice of Irish Marxist James Connolly.

Connolly watched the scheming of Redmond and Devlin with a mixture of contempt and horror. He knew enough about the poison of religious discrimination to realise that the partition of Ireland would write that discrimination permanently into the constitution of both halves of Ireland, and that the damage to the working class movement throughout the island would be incalculable.

He wrote:

“Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured. To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary ...”

Just as Carson and Bonar Law for their class had seen the exclusion of North East Ulster as crucial to the continued robbery of the Irish people, so James Connolly from his side saw straight through to the real purpose and consequence of the plot. Half a loaf was not better than no loaf at all if the half loaf had poison in it.

CONNOLLY’S campaign and the partition plot were held up. War broke out in Europe and the nation states hurled their working classes at one another in a desperate battle for markets.

The Home Rule Bill was left “on the table”. Redmond and Devlin at once agreed to become recruiting sergeants for the mass slaughter on behalf of the Empire they were trying to get their country to leave.

James Connolly was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. The rising was quickly crushed and Connolly, who had been injured in the fighting, was dragged from prison, strapped to a chair and shot.

On 29 May, not much more than a month after the rising was crushed, the new British prime minister, Lloyd George, in an effort to persuade the United States of America to join in the war on Britain’s side, made a sudden attempt to “solve” the Irish question once again.

He proposed immediate Home Rule for the 26 counties, with the six counties of the north east excluded as a British enclave. For this plan he got the instant agreement of John Redmond. But the proposal, and Redmond’s acquiescence, was quickly doused in a great wave of protest which engulfed all Ireland.

The lead was taken by the emerging Irish working class movement, whose growing representative bodies – there was for instance a great rash of newly formed trades councils – denounced partition and Redmond with unanimous ferocity.

The old Nationalist Party seemed almost overnight to vanish, to be replaced by a militantly republican organisation called Sinn Fein. Within months the whole of British authority in Ireland was in jeopardy.

Almost as soon as Lloyd George had proposed his partition plan, he dropped it. Redmond never recovered from the rejection of his treachery and died soon afterwards.

FOLLOWING the elections of 1918 a predominantly Conservative coalition government was returned, headed by the Liberal Lloyd George. Seventy-six Sinn Feiners were elected as Irish MPs, 36 of whom were in prison. The Nationalists were effectively annihilated. The prospect of long term British rule in all Ireland was no longer credible.

Once again the British rulers went back to their old plan. Once more they played the Orange card. The plot was simple – to hold Ireland by force while establishing the six north eastern counties as a “safe” British enclave.

The Government of Ireland Bill proposed two parliaments, one in the 26 counties, the other in the six. While the parliaments were set up, some sort of law and order had to be maintained by the time honoured methods recognised by Marx fifty years earlier: “the most hideous reign of terror and the most revolting corruption”.

On 23 June 1921 the Ulster parliament (composed, needless to say, of a majority of Protestants determined to maintain “a Protestant state for a Protestant people”) was opened by the King. At once the British rulers breathed a sigh of relief. Ulster was safe, the sectarian enclave was assured – and now it was no longer necessary to fight the rebels in the South. Instead they could be called to London for a conference.

On 8 July, only two weeks after the Ulster parliament was opened, Eamonn De Valera, the leader of Sinn Fein, was called to London for a secret meeting with Lloyd George. Three months later a full scale Sinn Fein delegation was ushered into Downing Street for talks with British ministers.

These rebels were represented by two journalists (Arthur Griffiths and Erskine Childers), two solicitors (Gavin Duffy and Eamonn Duggan), a landowner (Robert Barton) and a bank clerk (Michael Collins).

They were, in the purest meaning of the word, petty bourgeois leaders. They represented a stronger strain of nationalism than had Redmond and Devlin – but nationalism nevertheless. There was not a single voice of labour at the conference table, not a word to harken back to the magnificent and prophetic writings of Connolly eight years earlier.

The British ministers had a plan which was well summed up by Bonar Law. “I would give the South anything,” he said “or almost anything, but I would not enforce anything on Ulster.”

A great diplomatic game was then played out, according to this plan. Hours, and then days were spent discussing matters such as the Oath of Allegiance which future Irish MPs should or should not take to the Crown, the possible Dominion status of the new independent state, the access to Irish ports by the British navy in time of war and the question of tariff barriers.

In all these matters the British ministers had only a passing interest, but they kept the Irishmen talking over them interminably. Every now and then, with much grunting and bad temper, the British ministers would make a concession.

In all these matters Griffiths, Collins and Co (Childers, by far the most uncompromising of the original six, was swiftly removed from the negotiating table) felt, quite rightly, that they were making progress.

They agreed that the question of Ulster should be left to last. When it came, at last, the treaty was almost complete. It seemed churlish to quibble about the last question on the agenda.

Each one of the five restated their opposition to partition. Ireland was indivisible. Partition of their country could not be contemplated. When Lloyd George, in a “final” offer, suggested a Boundary Commission which would look into the fairness or otherwise of the six county state, one by one the Sinn Feiners started to think about the unthinkable, and finally signed the unsignable.

All five, including Michael Collins, the most implacable of the Sinn Fein fighters in the war against the Black and Tans, signed the treaty which cut their country in half.

STILL THE MATTER was not yet finally decided, however. The treaty had to be ratified by the Irish parliament, the Dáil. There was angry opposition to what was seen as a “sell-out”. Day after day the debate raged. Astonishingly, however, the argument mirrored the treaty discussions in London. There was opposition from the militant Republicans. But what worried them was the oath of allegiance to the Crown, the accessibility of Irish ports to the British navy and the status of the new independence.

Three hundred and thirty eight pages recorded the great Dáil debate; yet of these only nine were devoted to partition.

For nearly a year Ireland was plunged into another war – between the new government representing the Sinn Fein majority for the treaty and the anti-treaty militants. The best elements of Sinn Fein were systematically destroyed not by the British against whom they had fought so bravely, but by their own government, armed by the British.

Since Lloyd George’s diplomatic triumph of 1922 every single one of James Connolly’s worst predictions have come true.

The carnival of reaction has swung on, North and South. In the North the Orange Ascendancy has held onto its power by means of (I repeat the phrase yet again) “the most hideous reign of terror and the most revolting corruption”. Special police forces, gerrymandered voting systems, discriminatory employment and housing policies – all these and many more have served to create one of the most reactionary societies in the world.

In the South all movements for progress have been frustrated or patronised by the Roman Catholic Church. It is not simply that medieval superstitions still pass for government policy in matters of state intervention in people’s sex lives, but also that the reaction in the South has held back social reform movements.

HOW DOES the argument used by Carson and his colleagues for partition in 1912 to 1922 stand up today? The financial reasons they gave then have vanished. The old industries of the North are in decay.

If profits were all they were interested in the British ruling class would have abandoned Northern Ireland long ago. But the second reason for partition – the emasculation of the working class – is as powerful now as it ever was. A united Ireland, especially if the unity was achieved through what would appear to Northern Protestants as British treachery, would lead to a united working class movement in circumstances of great political unrest. It is a frightening prospect for important people in London and in Dublin.

It is worth almost endless expenditure on troops and intelligence services to keep the lid on the kettle.

While Dublin governments, which are swapped from time to time between the two conservative parties, are much more interested in doing deals with London to make sure there is no real change in the line of partition.

Even the supposedly Republican Fianna Fail party much prefers the devil it knows (a divided island and a sectarian statelet) to the devil it doesn’t know, which could turn into the most frightening devil of all, a conscious, united and fighting working class. I’ll leave the final word to Connolly:

“A real socialist movement cannot be built by temporising in front of a dying cause such as that of the Orange Ascendancy, even although in the paroxysms of its death struggle it assumes the appearance of energy like unto that of health. A real socialist movement can only be born of struggle, of uncompromising affirmation of the faith that is in us. Such a movement infallibly gathers to it every element of rebellion and of progress, and in the midst of the storm and stress of the struggle solidifies into a real revolutionary force.”


Last updated on 26.1.2005