Northern Ireland:


Background to the Crisis

(June 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.70, Mid-June 1974, pp.??.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Protestant strike, leading politicians in Britain have suddenly discovered the existence of an ‘Ulster nation’. They have begun to talk seriously as if the problem in Ireland was the reconciliation of two different nationalisms, ‘Ulster nationalism’ and Irish nationalism. The suggestion has even been floated that such reconciliation is only possible on the basis of a ‘repartition of Ireland’.

Yet any talk of ‘Ulster nationalism’ ignores the most elementary fact about Loyalism – that historically it has displayed a variety of national allegiances.

In the earliest years of the Orange Order (founded in 1793) the ‘Loyalty’ of many, possibly most of its supporters, was to the idea of a Protestant dominated all-Ireland parliament in Dublin. As the official historian of the Orange Order, Rev John Brown puts it:

‘... The great question of 1799 was that the Grand Orange Order Lodge and the Orangemen as a whole would think of Pitt’s proposed union [of the Irish with the British parliament]. Divisions appeared. Thomas Verner, Grand Master of Ireland, representing his family and many of the Northern gentry thought well of it. John C. Beresford, Grand Secretary, representing the great Beresford interest, was inclined to think ill of it.

‘A large section of the Protestant Ascendancy, proud of their parliament, and still triumphant of their victory in 1798 [over the United Irishmen – ed.] thought very ill of it. It is likely that they expressed the opinions of many members of the Orange body.’

A hundred years later the Orangemen were the most ardent supporters of the Union with Britain. But they were still not fighting for an ‘Ulster nation’ to be part of Britain – they were quite clear that what they were fighting for was for all of Ireland to remain under British rule. As the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ signed by 447,000 Protestants in 1912 declared

‘Home rule will be disastrous to the material well being of Ulster as well as the whole of Ireland ... we ... hereby pledge ourselves ... to stand one by another ... in using all means which may be found necessary to prevent the setting up of a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland ...’

This explains how one of the main leaders of the ‘Ulster’ movement of 1912 could be a Southern born, Dublin based Protestant, Carson.

When in 1920, Northern Ireland was established as a separate state linked to Britain, there was no enthusiasm for the scheme among Ulster Protestants.

‘The creation of a Unionist state in North Eastern Ireland was not welcomed by the Orangemen in 1920. Ulster Unionists refrained from voting for the Bill in the Commons ... on the ground that it destroyed the Union. Extreme reluctance was displayed in accepting self-government institutions. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig [later Lord Craigavon] wrote to Lloyd George not long after signing the treaty to “call to mind the sacrifices we have so recently made in agreeing to self government and consenting to the establishment of a Parliament for Northern Ireland”.’ (N. Mansergri, The Irish Question, p.213)

It is only since 1920 that it has come to seem that the essence of Orangism is defence of the six county state. And the idea that the six county state might be a ‘nation’ separate from Britain is of even more recent vintage – in fact it only goes back four or five years.

There has, however, been a constant feature underlying the varying national allegiances of the Loyalists: defence of Protestant ascendancy. What has existed in Ulster for at least the last two hundred years is not a division between two national groupings, each with its own national language and culture, each aspiring to control a separate geographical territory, but rather a caste-like division within the population, by which Protestants from different social classes have felt a common interest in maintaining a structure which discriminates against Catholics.

The Origins of Sectarianism

FROM THE final conquest of Ireland and the settlement of Ulster with English and Scottish settlers in the seventeenth century onwards, the British authorities used the granting of certain sorts of privileges to Protestants as a way of building political structures that would back up British rule. In the eighteenth century this meant ruling Ireland through a Protestant parliament (with Catholics denied political rights) and giving Protestant tenant farmers rights denied to Catholics.

As James Connolly summed up the situation:

‘Lands were stolen from Catholics, given to Episcopalians, but planted by Presbyterians; the latter were persecuted by the government, but could not avoid the necessity of defending it against the Catholics, and out of this complicated situation there inevitably grew up a feeling of common interests between the slaves and the slave drivers.’

Or again,

‘The Protestant element in Ireland were, in the main, plantation of strangers upon the soil from which the owners had been dispossessed by force. The economic dispossession was, perforce, accompanied by 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 Catholics and dispossessing the Protestants ...’

Out of the sectarian divisions contained in this situation, the authorities built up the Orange Order in the later 1790s as an instrument aimed at destroying the revolutionary movement and maintaining the status quo of British control and sectarian privilege.

With the industrialisation of the North-East of Ireland in the nineteenth century, the sectarianism of the Ulster countryside entered the towns. Impoverished Catholics and Protestants flooded into Belfast and competed with each other for houses and jobs. There were sectarian riots in 1835, 1843, 1857,1864,1872, 1880, 1884, 1886 and 1894, in which lives were lost, many people injured, houses burnt out.

However, it was in 1886, when the British Liberal government decided to grant limited ‘home rule’ to a United Ireland, that the Orange Order really took root. The landowning classes of England and Ireland (well represented in the Tory party of the time) and the industrialists of North-East Ulster both feared that their economic interests would suffer in such a set-up. As the leading British Tory, Lord Salisbury, put it,

‘The highest interests of the empire ... forbid us to solve this [Irish] question by conceding any species of independence to Irelandc ... All that is Protestant -nay all that is loyal – all who have land or money to lose ... would be at the mercy of the adventurers who have led the Land League’.

In similar vein, Lords Londonderry and Hamilton saw the Home Rule movement as ‘menacing to the rights of property’. These sections of the upper classes turned to the Orange Order as an instrument for defending their interests. As the official history of the Orange Order records,

‘The introduction of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill gave the Order a membership which was to transform it completely to make it a highly respectable and exceedingly powerful religious, political organisation’.

Orangism developed as a very effective mechanism for binding a large chunk of the Protestant working class to their economic masters.

‘The Orange Lodges proved the basis for an effective political machine while their traditions of fraternal equality between members tended to blur class distinctions and helped to reconcile the Protestant working class to the leadership of landlords and wealthy businessmen.’ (J.C. Becket, The Making of Modern Ireland, p.399).

The virulent anti-Catholicism of Orangism provided an ideology which induced Protestant workers to vote for Tory Unionist politicians, and sectarian discrimination provided an economic basis for this ideology. Protestant businessmen and landowners would give priority in employment to Protestants, so that in the main sections of industry in the Belfast area the better paid, skilled jobs went almost entirely to Protestants. In 1901, Catholics formed 24.3 per cent of the population of Belfast, yet held only 10.1 per cent of jobs in engineering, 15.5 per cent in carpentry, 11.6 per cent in plumbing and six per cent in the shipyards.

Protestant politicians became entrenched in local government on the basis of the sectarian vote and used their position to further deepen the sectarian divide. When it came to distribution of council contracts to small businessmen or the taking on of new council employees, Protestants had an advantage over Catholics.

The machine which distributed these privileges to the Protestant workers and lower middle class was the Orange Order and its ancillary institutions. With its estimated 100,000 members, it penetrated every section of the Protestant community.


THE PARTITION of Ireland in 1921 gave this Orange machine complete political mastery over the six counties. The boundaries of the new state were deliberately designed so as to ensure that there would be an inbuilt Unionist Majority (that is why three Ulster counties, with Catholic majorities were excluded) – but that the statelet was large, enough to survive on its own (hence the inclusion of two other counties with Catholic majorities). The Unionist politicians spoke of the new statelet as having a ‘Protestant parliament for Protestant people’ – but ensured that more than a third of the population included in the area of the state were Catholics.

In this way, the Orange institutions were able to control effectively the Stormont parliament and to ensure that it followed a sectarian line. Every Northern Ireland premier since 1921 has been an Orangeman – and so too until recently were all cabinet ministers. The same control existed in the police force. The key officers in the regular police – the Royal Ulster Constabulary – were in the Orange Order and were able to ensure that other policemen promoted to positions of importance were Orangemen too. And the 7000 strong paramilitary ‘B-specials’ were recruited almost entirely from the Order. Almost all the judges were ex-Unionist politicians and all the crown solicitors were Protestants. The 8000 strong civil service was 94 per cent Protestant – again, the Orange Order presumably had an important part to play in determining promotion chances.

A whole number of measures were used to ensure a Unionist stranglehold on areas where the majority of the population were Catholic. Such measures included: the company vote, the imposition of a property qualification for elections, and the drawing up of ward boundaries so as to give a few Protestants more council seats than a much larger number of Catholics.

In this way, for instance, Deny city, with 14,429 Catholic votes as against 8,781 Protestant votes, had a Protestant Unionist majority of four in the council.

The Unionist controlled councils ensured that Protestants got the best jobs, with only 12 percent of Northern Ireland’s local government staff Catholics. In Fermanagh, for instance, a county with a slight Catholic majority in the population, only 32 of the 370 council employees were Catholics. And in Derry (with its clear Catholic majority in the population)

Catholics only accounted for 26 per cent of the total salary bill. Even when it came to meagre jobs like bus driving or refuse collecting, discrimination prevented Catholics getting more than a third of the jobs in a city where they were two thirds of the population and where they faced an unemployment rate of about 30 per cent. In Fermanagh, two thirds of the council houses built between 1945 and 1969 went to Protestants – although they were less than half the population.

Catholics were effectively excluded from the main industries in the Belfast area. For instance, Harland and Wolfs Belfast has fewer than 500 Catholics out of its 9,000 workforce – and among its skilled workers virtually no Catholics. The same is true of other factories, such as Sirocco, Mackie’s, Short brothers, Rolls Royce. In Belfast the Catholics are chiefly confined to peripheral jobs like bus driving, building, etc. The very success of the Protestant strike is an indication of the success of discrimination – the Protestants could stop industry because they have the key jobs in the key industries.

Catholics could only be persuaded to accept effective discrimination against them in every area of social life if the same machine which gave privileges to Protestants doled out repression to Catholics. So inbuilt into the Stormont structure from the beginning was legalised thuggery against the Catholic communities.

The Protestant Working Class

WHAT IS sometimes called ‘Ulster nationalism’ is, in reality, the loyalty which the Protestant working class and lower middle class feel towards institutions which have given them a privileged position compared with the Catholic population. It is these privileges which made them feel that the Stormont state was ‘their’ state and that any threat to it was a threat to themselves.

It did not matter how ‘moderately’ Catholics expressed their desire for an end to discrimination. As Eamonn McCann has quite correctly pointed out,

‘In a situation where the Protestants had more than their fair share of jobs, houses and voting power, to demand an end to discrimination was to suggest that Catholics should get more jobs, houses and voting power than they had at present – and Protestants less. This simple mathematical calculation did not seem to occur to leaders of the civil rights movement. But five minutes’ talk with a Paisleyite counter-demonstrator would have left one in no doubt that it was not missed on the Protestant working class!.’

A full grown ideology came into being which identified the oppressed Catholic third of the population as a permanent threat to the Protestant ascendancy and clung to the apparatus of state repression as necessary to keep them in their place, seeing the greatest possible danger as a United Ireland in which the numerical majority of Catholics might be able to force the Protestants to accept the role formerly assigned to Catholics. It was backed up by a whole mythology as to what being a Catholic entailed, as to the power of the Pope and the Catholic church and as to what would happen if the Pope ever got his hands on the six counties.

In its most extreme form such an ideology condones and even encourages the murder of Catholics just for being Catholics.

That does not mean that the Protestant working class is an undifferentiated mass of bitter sectarians. Large numbers would claim that their Loyalism has nothing to do with anti-Catholicism. And even some of the extreme Loyalist organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force have claimed that they are against ‘sectarianism’.

But such opposition to ‘sectarianism’ has never meant actively fighting the sectarian pattern of employment and housing allocation which provides marginal privileges to Protestants. Indeed, it involves defending the status quo, of which such discrimination is part, against those who would upset it.

It is in this sense that the ‘non-sectarian’ trade union movement in Northern Ireland has been sectarian through and through. Many of its activists have been left Labour or Communist Party members. But they have organised a workforce which is structured along sectarian lines and which has engrained sectarian attitudes.

Usually they have done this for falling into the easy option of talking about immediate economic issues, but evading any discussion over the wider issues of discrimination and Orangism.

Yet despite the hold of sectarian attitudes and the refusal of the unions to fight these, it would be quite wrong for socialists to write off the Protestant working class. It has to be stressed that the privileges it enjoys are marginal privileges; indeed, large numbers of individual Protestant workers are undoubtedly worse off than many individual Catholic workers. In this respect, its situation is qualitatively different from that of, say, the white workers of South Africa.

The Protestant working class itself suffers from the way the sectarian divide prevents working class unity. Wages throughout Northern Ireland are 20-25 per cent less than in Britain. This is as true of industries like shipbuilding which are almost entirely Protestant as of the rest. Unemployment, among Protestants, has usually been about twice as high as in Britain. Housing for Protestants as well as Catholics is worse than the average in Britain (with nearly three times as many homes being officially ‘overcrowded’).

Against such a background it is hardly surprising that the Protestant workers have occasionally reached very great heights in their economic struggles. At times, as in the strikes led by Jim Larkin in 1907, the general strike in Belfast of 1919, or the joint Catholic-Protestant unemployed demonstrations of the early 1930s, the result has been, temporarily to bury sectarian feeling. However, those who have led such struggles never succeeded in completely breaking through the hold of the Orange sectarian structure by developing a new, revolutionary socialist consciousness among any large numbers of Protestant workers. The result in each case was that two or three years later the traditional political leaders of the Protestant community were able to reestablish their hold by inflaming sectarian feelings and leading mobs into Catholic areas.


THE QUESTION of republicanism causes almost as much confusion in Britain as does Orangism. And again, the confusion is not confined to the bourgeois press. It finds its way into the revolutionary movement.

Historically, republicanism represented the reaction of sections of the Irish middle class to the impact of British imperialist rule. The economic exploitation of Ireland by the British ruling class left little leeway for the development of a native Irish capitalism. The result was that the aspirations of the middle class were continually frustrated. As they saw it, if only British rule were ended, Ireland would be able to develop as a nation like any other and they would be able to advance to the same level as middle classes elsewhere.

But this does not mean at all that republicanism was an ideology confined to the successful Irish capitalists. Far from it. The more successful members of the Irish middle class were in developing as capitalists within the framework imposed by British imperialism, the less they had need of a separatist, still less a radical republican ideology. Within the middle class the main appeal of republicanism was to the less well placed groups.

The mass base Irish nationalism needed was provided above all by the Catholic peasantry. The immediate enemy of the Irish peasantry in the nineteenth century were the Anglo-Irish landlords. It was the ability of the nationalist ideas to point to this enemy that enhanced their popularity. The result was that the ideology of nationalism developed by the Irish middle class came to be the normal expression of the most radical ideas among the mass of the population.

Unlike Orangeism, Republicanism has always been a progressive movement, in the sense that it has tried to mobilise the mass of the Irish population regardless of their religion against the representatives of British capitalism – which, after all, has been the main organiser of exploitation in Ireland. To this end the republican movement has been committed, verbally at least, to overcoming the sectarian divide – even if in practice, the middle class origin of its ideas has made it incapable of accomplishing this task. Certainly, from a socialist point of view republicanism and Loyalism cannot be regarded as equivalent ‘nationalism’. Republicanism has historically led tens of thousands of people to fight against those who exploit the workers of Ireland; Orangeism has led tens of thousands of people to fight for the exploiters.

The Limits of Republicanism

HOWEVER, IF nationalism and republicanism could act as ideologies propelling the mass of the Irish population into various struggles, they could never give a clear idea as to what these struggles were supposed to achieve. The essence of republicanism was (and is) to emphasise the need for a struggle to remove the British physical presence, without discussing what would replace it. Anyone who raised such issues was reckoned to be ‘dividing the republican ranks’.

As James Connolly pointed out in 1899, the result was that,

‘Ireland occupies a position among the nations of the earth unique in a great variety of its aspects, but in no one particular is this singularity more marked than in the possession of what is known as a "physical force party" – a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain.

‘Our people have glided at different periods of the past century from moral force agitation, so-called, into physical force rebellion, from constitutionalism into insurrectionism, meeting in each the same failure and the same disaster and yet seem as far as ever from learning the great truth that neither method is ever likely to be successful until they first insist that a perfect agreement upon the end to be attained should be arrived at as a starting-point of all our efforts.’

The contradictions in republicanism were shown visibly in the years after 1916. Most of those who initiated the rising of 1916 were radical republicans whose vision went far beyond the Irish capitalism, the ‘Gaelic Manchester’, of which people like Arthur Griffiths, the founder of Sinn Fein spoke. But the ideal of ‘national unity’ against the British enabled the bourgeoisie to play an increasingly important part in the republican agitation as it gained popularity towards the end of World War I. Providing they supported ‘physical force’ it did not matter to rank and file republicans what their other views were. So in the first Dail (i.e. the republican parliament) of 1919 nearly two thirds of the members were from the urban professional and white collar class, another quarter were capitalists and the remaining 10 per cent farmers.

To the mass of poorer peasants and workers who supported the republican struggle, throwing out the British was regarded as equivalent to doing away with the causes of poverty and emigration. But to those bourgeois elements, all that was necessary was that the British came to an agreement that gave Irish capitalism a little extra leeway for development. It was hardly surprising that in 1921-2 the majority of the Dail were prepared to vote for a Treaty with Britain which left in British hands the six counties of North East Ireland.

However, a section of the middle class leadership led by Devalera were not happy with exact terms of the settlement. They denounced it and their feelings were echoed by traditional supporters of republicanism, particularly among the small farmers of the west, whose conditions were not improved one iota by the formation of an ‘independent’ 26 county state. But they still claimed that the alternative was a more extreme form of national struggle – not an ongoing day in day out fight against British and Irish capitalism.

In the years 1922-1930, 350,000 people were forced into emigration by poverty. But this was nothing compared with the ravages the country faced in the early 1930s as the world slump had its effect. People reacted by turning against the established ‘Free State’ government. Support for republicanism built up until the IRA could claim 3,000 volunteers in Dublin alone.

But its disdain for ‘politics’ which might ‘divide the nation’ prevented the republicans themselves taking advantage of this. Devalera left the republican movement to form a ‘constitutional republican party’, Fianna Fail and used the new pro-republican sentiment to win electoral power. But he did nothing to change the fundamentals of the relationship between Ireland and Britain, and a few years later attacked the IRA as much as the first Free State government had. The republicans could not provide the mass of their followers with a programme for going forward against the new breed of Irish capitalism, were quite out-manoeuvred by Devalera and the movement rapidly declined until it was almost extinct by the end of World War II.

There was a slight revival of support for the IRA in the traditionally republican areas in the 1950s. Once again unemployment and the threat of enforced emigration pushed young men to take a radical stance and express it through the fight ‘for the republic’. The IRA organised a guerrilla campaign designed to drive the British out of Northern Ireland and even won elections (on an abstentionist programme) in a few localities North and South of the border. But they were unable to build up any mass support either among the Catholics in the six counties or in the South and eventually abandoned the guerrilla strategy.

The decline the IRA underwent in the South was matched by a similar decline in the North. Significantly, it played a very limited role indeed in the first year of the Civil Rights Movement (October 1968-August 1969). However, in one important respect its position in the North differed from that in the South. For people in the isolated Catholic ghettoes in the Northern cities the small groups of local republicans were not merely respected because of their dedication to what had once been a mass movement. They were also the last line of defence against the sectarian attacks which had taken place periodically over the years.

Hence it was that the ghetto population automatically turned towards the local IRA units for support in August 1969 when police, B-specials and Orangemen attacked the ghettoes, leaving a trail of dead and wounded and of burnt out houses.

The Split in the Republican Movement

IT WAS the reaction of the republican movement to this sudden influx of support which precipitated the split between the ‘Officials’ and the ‘Provisionals’ some months later.

By the mid-1960s, many of the republicans who had been through the border campaign in the 1950s were beginning to see that physical force alone was not going to achieve the goal they set themselves. They began to turn to politics and to speak of ‘socialism’. It was this group that constituted the ‘Official’ leadership at the time of the split (hence the title).

However, the politics this group adopted was not revolutionary socialist politics (although they occasionally claim that it is) but basically reformist politics, to a very large extent under Communist Party influence. In practice this came to mean arguing in Northern Ireland that before you could fight for a United Ireland, still less fight for socialism, the six county state itself had to be democratised.

This talk of ‘democratising Stormont’ made the Officials oblivious to the explosive contradictions inbuilt into the very structure of the sectarian statelet. They were caught quite unawares by the turn of events in August 1969 and did not know how to respond when the mass of Catholics started demanding armed protection.

The more traditional republicans were able to provide the necessary military response – particularly as they did not put off well-to-do sympathisers of republicanism in the South and in the US with ‘socialistic’ talk. As they split from the ‘Official’ IRA these ‘Provisionals’ rapidly gathered large numbers of recruits from younger, more militant Northern Catholics.

The Provisional republican movement hardly has a political programme at all. It contains vehement opponents of ‘communism’ and those who say that after Ireland is unified they will fight for socialism. What unites them is the belief that physical force is needed in the here and now to fight the British and protect the Catholic community against the Orangemen, and that political differences must not be allowed to divide the movement.

What is not sufficiently realised in the working class movement to Britain is that over the last four years the Provos have come to enjoy a certain sort of mass support in the Catholic ghettoes of the North. Despite the fact that the British church, the Catholic hierarchy, the Southern government and the Social Democrat and Labour Party will all unite to condemn ‘gunmen’ the feeling in the Catholic ghettoes is rather different. Most people there still respect the courage of the Provo volunteers and look to them for protection against the army and the sectarian thugs.

However, this does not mean by any means that the Proves enjoy the sort of support which would enable them to achieve the goal they set themselves – the achievement of an independent and united Ireland. For their rejection of socialist politics means that they are unable to deal with some of the most important obstacles to national unity and independence.

In the first place, without a social programme it is quite impossible to make any appeal at all to the Protestant workers – yet as the Protestant strike has shown, while the Protestants remain under the thralls of Orange ideology they represent an obstacle to the creation of a United Ireland which physical force from the Provos alone is not going to overcome.

But it is not only its effect on the Protestants that makes their approach unworkable. The line of ‘national unity against the British’ also makes it impossible to build an ongoing mass movement in the South. The Southern working class has immense potential power which could be used to support the Northern resistance and to harass British interests in the South (as was shown in the demonstrations which burnt down the British embassy after Bloody Sunday). But for most Southern workers most of the time, the North seems a very long way away. It just does not seem to relate to their own problems of finding work, of trying to keep up with inflation, of getting home from work dog tired. Republicanism is, at best, something they might occasionally get emotional about in their spare time.

The only way to change this state of mind would be to link the fight against British domination and sectarianism in the North with the day to day struggle in industry in the South. But this is something the Provos just cannot do – the moment they tried they would have to talk about an immediate perspective for socialist struggle which would offend their middle class members and supporters.

Among Catholics in the North, the lack of socialist politics also has its effect. The Provos’ attitude means that they take the most militant elements in the ghettoes and train them as guerrilla fighters. But that leaves completely untouched the problem of winning over ideologically the rest of the ghetto population – in particular those who work in industry and have potential economic power. Yet the recent Protestant strike has shown that this economic power can be as effective in its own way as the bomb and the gun.

It is often claimed by British socialists (and by the Officials) that the Provos are somehow responsible for sectarianism. The claim is, in itself, nonsense. Sectarianism in its modern, Orange form is at least 180 years older than the Provisional IRA and the Provos, unlike the Loyalist paramilitary groups, do not murder people just because of their religion. What is true, however, is that Provisionals cannot fight sectarianism effectively. Their physical force strategy can only appeal to the Catholic section of the Northern population, and years of being on the receiving end of Protestant sectarianism have bred a reactive sectarianism of its own among some of this population. The tactic of bombing shops and offices used by Protestant workers is hardly likely to endear them to republican ideas.

The Officials claim to be quite different from the Provo. They speak of themselves as ‘socialists’ and occasionally as a ‘revolutionary party’. But the centre of their political strategy is putting off the struggle for socialist demands to the distant future in the same way as do socialists in the Provisional IRA. For the Officials what matters in the short term is the struggle to ‘democratise’ the six counties. But such an approach does not in any way tie in with the sorts of problems which worry either Catholic or Protestant workers in terms of their real life conditions – their wages, housing conditions. When it comes to such immediate issues, North or South of the border, all the Officials have to offer is a vague populism which sees struggles over marginal issues like fishing rights as important as workers’ struggles, and which offers ‘support’ for workers’ struggles without fighting for a socialist programme within the class.

In reality, the rejection of the Provos’ tactics by the Officials does not mean that they have any clearer conception of how to move forward. It tends to mean that their members do little except electoral work, combined with occasional lurches toward Provo tactics designed to prove that they still exist.

The attitude of socialists towards both wings of the IRA has to be similar: support for them insofar as they protect the Catholic population against the British troops and sectarian attacks, unconditional support for their right to fight to throw out the British troops even if we do not agree with the tactics they use, but no illusion that ‘victory to the IRA’ is possible in modern Ireland on the basis of republican ideology.

Direct Rule and Sunningdale

FOR 50 years British governments, Labour and Tory, were content for Northern Ireland to be ruled by the Orangemen and for Catholics to be discriminated against in every area of social life.

The logic of the British ruling class was simple. The industrial wealth of Ireland was concentrated in the area around Belfast. The Orange structure protected this wealth. Furthermore, partition left Southern Ireland too poor to ever be able to follow an independent economic policy for any great length of time. The whole of Ireland was effectively stapled to Britain by its North East corner. But the very success of this policy led to its breakdown. In the 1950s Irish governments, realising that they could not be independent of British capitalism took to paying out huge subsidies for foreign companies which invested in Ireland.

The result was that the South gradually came to contain more investment than the North. Between 1961 and 1965 gross fixed capital investment per annum in the South grew from £108.5 million to £193 million, while in the North it only grew from £94.3 million to £159 million. The number of workers in manufacturing grew in the South to more than 300,000 as against 230,000 in the North.

Big business in Britain began to worry lest crude sectarianism in the British-backed Northern statelet give rise to movements against British interests in the South. What is more, the giant companies behind investment North and South began to see the border itself as an obstacle to co-ordinating their operations on a 32 county basis.

It was these economic changes which brought about a changed reaction in Britain to the repression of the Catholic civil rights movement in the North in 1968-69. The British government began to insist that the Stormont regime carry through reforms. British troops confronted armed Protestant sectarians on the Shankill Road in the autumn of 1969, the British government disarmed the RUC (temporarily) and disbanded the B-specials.

But in the years after 1969, it soon became clear that a few reforms were not enough to destroy the heritage of a century and more of rule through sectarian methods. Not only the B-specials, but the regular police, the courts, the civil service, the management of industry, were all cast in a sectarian mould. Any real attempt to combat sectarianism meant the complete collapse of all the mechanisms which enabled Britain to rule Northern Ireland and which maintained the ideological control of the ruling class over the majority of the workers. The British government came to recognise this as it shied away from taking any sort of measures which might ‘alienate’ the Protestant workers.

Instead, its policy since 1969 has swerved from side to side. It abolished the B-specials, but soon afterwards formed the Ulster Defence Regiment, dominated by the same personnel. In 1969 its troops shot at Protestant sectarians in the Shankill, in the summer of 1970 the same troops carefully herded sectarian Orange marches through outlying parts of Catholic ghettoes. In 1969 the troops brought an Orange rampage through the Catholic areas of Belfast to an end; in 1970 they began going on such rampages themselves ‘searching for arms’.

The introduction of internment in the summer of 1971 and the shooting of 13 unarmed demonstrators in Derry early the next year seemed to presage a complete reversal to the old pattern of one-sided repression. Yet a few weeks after Bloody Sunday the British tried to placate the Catholics by abolishing the Loyalists’ beloved Stormont and even went so far, in the summer of 1972, as to enter into negotiations with the Proves. However, these broke down and a new campaign of intimidation against the Catholic ghettoes began, with the British now trying to placate the Protestants by sending armoured vehicles into the ‘no-go’ areas.

Fear of upsetting the applecart in Southern Ireland pushed the British ruling class in one direction; but a fear of pushing the majority of the population in the six counties into complete opposition to British rule pushed it in the other.

Through last year, however, it thought that it had found a strategy for resolving the contradictions which would work. This was expressed first in the British government’s white paper of March last year, and then in the Sunningdale agreement and the creation of the Northern Ireland Executive.

The aim as expressed in the White Paper was to ‘seek a much wider concensus than has hitherto existed’ to ‘involve majority and minority interests alike’ in the work of the government. The method for achieving this was for the British authorities to select from among those elected to a new Northern Ireland Assembly an ‘executive’ made up of those politicians from the two communities who were prepared to co-operate in implementing Britain’s plans. In this way it was hoped that the middle class parties in the two communities would act as a mechanism for binding the rank and file workers to the new set-up.

The British government tried to win the Catholics over by a combination of the carrot and the stick. The carrot was the fact that for the first time in 50 years sections of the Catholic population would be able to influence what happened politically, dispensing some of the patronage which came from controlling government ministries and local authorities, backed by a Council of Ireland which would provide the Southern state with a limited amount of influence over the affairs of the North. The stick was a continuation of repression – particularly directed against those areas which were notably republican and opposed to British rule. The vast majority of British troops remained ensconced in the republican areas, almost as if punishing those who refused to support the middle class SDLP politicians who were for collaboration with the British. There are also indications that the authorities deliberately did nothing to prevent sectarian assassinations in such areas.

The British troops disarmed the republicans who had defended these areas but did little themselves to arrest the progress of Loyalist assassins. It was as if they wanted to prove to the Catholics that the only defence against such attacks was to accept law and order imposed by British troops. Certainly, of the 200 and more sectarian murders, the overwhelming majority were murders of Catholics by Loyalists. Yet the main attack of the troops remained against the republicans.

Overall, the combination of stick and carrot did have some effect on the Catholic population. In both the Assembly elections and the recent British general election, the SDLP got a much bigger vote than its republican opponents (even taking into account Provisional abstentions) although that did not mean, as the British hoped it would, that people in the Catholic ghettoes were prepared to hand over to the authorities those republicans who kept fighting the army and the police.

But among the Protestants, resistance to the new set-up was much more widespread. The people most likely to lose out under it were not the Protestant upper class, who could easily adjust to Britain’s new plans and were, in any case, increasingly interlocked with the interests of British and international industry. Those likely to suffer were the small businessmen, dependent upon sectarian contracts for orders and the petty politicians who gained localised power from their ability to mobilise the Loyalist community.

This meant that in the period since the first imposition of direct rule by Britain (spring 1972) the old Orange bloc split time and again, as its different leaders turned on one another in their efforts to resist the threat to Protestant ascendancy.

After much vacillation, men like Faulkner decided that the future lies with the interests of British capitalism rather than with the traditional Orange structures which brought them to political prominance in the first place. Other politicians like Craig, West and Paisley believed that sectarian politics still has a lot of life left in it and tried to continue to manipulate the sectarian structures so as to prove to British capitalism that they were the men to run Northern Ireland.

At the rank and file level, Loyalists turned this way and that in an attempt to come to terms with the situation. They demonstrated on the streets, they voted against the Faulknerites in elections, they have organised random killings of Catholics. And then, last month, almost by accident, they stumbled on the power which their virtual monopoly of jobs in key industries gives them.

After the Strike

THE COLLAPSE of the Northern Ireland Executive as a result of the strike has destroyed British ruling class’s Sunningdale strategy. In the weeks since the strike the British papers have been full of a variety of schemes aiming to extricate British interests from the impasse in which they find themselves. Yet each of these alternatives fails to solve the central problem facing capitalism in Ireland: how to elaborate some scheme of control which preserves bourgeois stability North and South of the border, tying the Northern working class to a capitalist state, without leading to open civil war into which the South of Ireland could all too easily be drawn.

The outcome of these deliberations has not been so much a policy, as a lack of policy, summed up in a Financial Times editorial: ‘the need for patience’.

Yet this policy of hoping, somehow, to muddle through hardly holds a great deal of hope for the British government. There is already growing pressure within some sections of the capitalist class for military withdrawal – presumably on the assumption that whoever rules Northern Ireland and however much damage there might be in the short term, in the long term British capitalism would be able to pick up the pieces on the basis of its economic, rather than military domination of the area.

What of the lessons for the left from the strike?

Already, different people are drawing quite the wrong lessons from it. On the one extreme stand the so-called ‘British and Irish Communist Organisation’ – a group which claims that the Protestants are a ‘nation’ and therefore justified in fighting to maintain their own state and their separation from the rest of Ireland. Already they are creating a whole mythology about what happened. These have presented the strike not only as somehow being in the interest of Ulster workers, but also as being ‘non-sectarian’. As their paper, the Workers’ Weekly has put it:

‘The UWC strike cost two weeks’ loss of production, no deaths or woundings, and no destruction of property. On the contrary, the killings and bombings which were a daily occurrence until the strike started were stopped by the impact of the strike.’

But this is a complete travesty of the facts. It is true that the sectarian violence in the North was not as terrible as it might have been. Nevertheless, no fewer than 40 people died during the period of the strike all killed by Loyalists who supported the UWC. Among these were 31 people killed by the Loyalist bombs that went off in Dublin and Monaghan at the beginning of the strike; two Catholic brothers shot dead in Ballymena when they refused to shut their pub; a young Catholic woman shot dead in the New Lodge area by UDA men; a Protestant shot dead by Loyalists for being in an open pub; three Catholics assassinated in Belfast.

The fact is that the strike was a reactionary strike, aiming to reimpose on Northern Ireland an openly anti-Catholic, sectarian form of government. No amount of calling the Loyalists a ‘nation’ can alter that.

At the other extreme was the response of the Communist Party in Northern Ireland which called upon the British troops to break the strike. ‘The British Labour government,’ wrote James Stewart, assistant general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, ‘must act immediately to prevent the total collapse of economic and social life in Northern Ireland.’ (Unity, 25 May 1974). Andy Barr, chairman of the CPI complained on 2 May, ‘I do not think the security forces are doing enough yet.’ And a statement from the CPI Northern Area Committee (signed by James Stewart) called ‘on the Secretary of State to ensure that foodstuffs are available to all areas, that all roads are ppen, that public transport is fully restored, and that fuel and power are available.’ (Unity, 25 May).

Yet there is no doubt that had the security forces successfully broken the strike, that would have boosted the confidence of employers in Ireland and Britain when dealing with other sorts of strikes in future. This lesson was not lost on the Times (28 May 1974).

‘The people of the United Kingdom as a whole have a vital interest in the defeat of this strike. Constitutional government in modern conditions is vulnerable to the weapon of the political strike ... It is a weapon that more will be eager to take up with every proof of its success.’

The only approach possible for revolutionaries in such circumstances was to oppose the breaking of the strike by troops. For the success of the troops would have meant them taking from the Protestant workers the main weapon of working class struggle, even if it was being misused. Instead, what should have been argued for was a struggle by workers themselves to end the strike collectively keeping their strength as a class intact.

The confusion in the Communist Party is even more evident in the case of the official republican movement. On the one hand, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which it influences, has been calling on the British troops to stay and for Britain (presumably through the troops) to solve the problem; yet on the other, the Official IRA itself engaged during the period of the strike in its first military operations against the British army for some time.

Finally, the Loyalist strike has also underlined the lack of viability of the Provisionals’ tactics. They have argued since their foundation that direct, physical force is all that is really needed to get rid of the British and unite Ireland. Yet in the wake of the Loyalist strike, they seemed to have shied away from the idea of immediate British withdrawal. Both O’Brady and O’Connell have made statements stressing that they want ‘phased withdrawal’ only, lest there be ‘another Congo’.

The implication of the positions put forward by the Communist Party, NICRA and the Provos is that British imperialism can be forced to change completely the state structure in Northern Ireland before it is finally compelled to depart. Yet the reaction of the British troops to the Loyalist strike should prove completely the opposite. The British authorities have shied away from a real confrontation with the sectarian structures that exist in Northern Ireland every time the issue has posed itself in the last six years. Despite the talk of ‘power sharing’ during the Sunningdale period, the realities of sectarianism never disappeared from where it really mattered – in relationship to the working class.

In employment, Catholics are still severely discriminated against. This is shown by a quick examination of the unemployment statistics area by area.

Average Northern Ireland


  6.6 per cent

Three predominantly Catholic towns:



16.7 per cent


13.7 per cent

Derry City

10.3 per cent

Average Belfast


  4.0 per cent

Predominantly Catholic areas in Belfast:



33.3 per cent


23.7 per cent


20.4 per cent

Lower Falls

19.7 per cent

Unity Flats and environs

19.9 percent

Turf Lodge

18.8 per cent

Middle Falls

16.8 per cent

The British state is now responsible for the major share of investment in Belfast industry (Rolls Royce, Short Bros, Harland and Wolffs etc.). But the sectarian pattern of employment in those industries is as strong as ever.

The sectarianism has also persisted undisturbed within the state apparatus itself. This was sharply revealed during the Protestant strike. With 94 per cent of the civil service posts in the hands of Protestants, with the influence of Orangism in the RUC and with the Ulster Defence Regiment being overwhelmingly Loyalist, it was hardly surprising that much of the state apparatus refused to obey the dictate of the official government. Paddy Devlin, the SDLP ex-minister told Tribune,

‘the permanent secretaries told Faulkner that they could conceive of a situation where they could no longer support the Executive because of the effects of the situation on their departments and their working.’

In the period since the strike, the British troops have continued to devote more attention to dealing with the republican areas than with the Loyalists.

There is no doubt that an immediate withdrawal of the troops could lead to vicious sectarian attacks on the Catholic areas by the Loyalists. But the presence of the British troops is in no way undermining the conditions that make that possible. If anything, it is altering the balance of arms in the Loyalists’ favour all the time.

The confusion on the left on such questions reveals that, paradoxically, the impasse which the British authorities face in trying to solve their problems is matched by the impasse in which socialists and republicans find themselves. And neither the bombing of town centres, nor appeals to the British government are going to clear a way through the impasse.

Only one thing can – the turn to a strategy of revolutionary activity within the working class, North and South, a strategy that the Communist Party, the Officials and the Provos have all rejected in practice.

As the policy statement of the Irish revolutionary organisation, the Socialist Workers Movement, states:

The extreme right wing in the Loyalist camp must be isolated. Many of these leaders are potential fascists and want to physically smash all working-class opposition to imperialist and capitalist rule. Others wish to physically liquidate the Catholic population. But British imperialism does not want fascism in the Six Counties. Capitalists only resort to fascism as a last resort. They much prefer normal middle-class democravy and this is what Britain is aiming at in Ireland.

The task of smashing the right wing is not one for the British Army. Even if the Army were physically to smash the right wing, this would not end sectarianism.

In the event of the British Army taking military action against Loyalist organisations, socialists should not take sides in the conflict, and should reject any suggestion of supporting them against the Army ‘because they are Irish’ or ‘because the Army is our enemy too’. Socialists must demand the withdrawal of the Army. It has no progressive role to play in Ireland. If it is used against Loyalist workers, it will only be to further the interests of imperialism.

The task of smashing the right wing is one for Protestant workers themselves. They can only do this when they begin to see that the right-wing extremists are totally opposed to their interests as workers. Socialists must have the perspective of involving Loyalist workers in struggles against the right-wing Orange bosses in the unions and in the factories.

There is no short-term answer to sectarian divisions in the working class. Those who seek to find one by engaging in policies of class collaboration – between the unions, bosses and ruling class politicians – are only making the problem more long-term than it need be. Sectarian divisions will only be overcome in common working-class struggle against the bosses, politicians and compromisers.

In this task, socialists must aim to form links with rank and file Loyalists. But we talk to them as workers. The Officials’, Provisional’s and SDLP’s attempts to engage in talks with the leadership of the Loyalist camp will not help. These men are not concerned with furthering the interests of Loyalist workers, but rather in restoring the old corrupt and violent Loyalist’s supremacy.

The Orange State must be smashed. This means much more than simply abolishing Stormont. It means rooting out the whole network of official and unofficial privileges and patronages. Objective developments are undermining them, and the British ruling class has tried to disrupt them. But they still remain and the Orange State, as the only possible instrument of capitalist rule in the Six Counties, also remains, To smash it, and to break the hold of Loyalism on the Protestant workers, must mean smashing the capitalist class and its ownership and control of the means of production.

A divided working class cannot smash capitalism and therefore the anti-Unionist workers alone cannot smash the Orange State. The Protestant workers cannot be mobilised against the Orange State unless that fight is a fight against capitalism as well as against repression and discrimination.

The most crucial factor in showing Protestant workers that a united and free Ireland is in their interests is the struggle of the workers in the South against capitalist and imperialist rule there. Southern workers are the catalyst in overcoming Protestant workers’ fears of Irish unity and independence. Their struggle for socialism can show clearly that they are not simply more militant nationalists but determined to completely transform Irish society by achieving working-class power. This is something Loyalist workers can relate to as workers.’

Last updated on 18 November 2009