Chris Harman


The Frankenstein monster

(December 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Ireland’s history seems to be an unremitting series of ‘troubles’. But, argues Chris Harman, these can be explained by the role of Britain in Ireland, by the enforced partition of its northern counties, and by deliberate attempts to stifle unity from below

Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have asked at one cabinet meeting, ‘But why are we in Ireland?’ This story is apocryphal – one of those press rumours that may well not be true. But it sums up the confusion that has beset the British ruling class when dealing with Ireland for well over a century.

Another earlier ruling class warrior, Sir Winston Churchill, certainly gave expression to the same feeling of bewilderment when writing of the Cabinet discussions in 1919:

‘Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great empires had been overturned. The whole map of Europe had been changed ... The mode and thought of men, the whole outlook of affairs, the groupings of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world, but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.’

The problem for Britain’s rulers is that they should long ago have done in all of Ireland what they did with the rest of their empire – withdraw from direct control leaving sections of the indigenous middle classes to defend capitalist rule.

Again and again over the years they have come close to this option, yet have retreated from it because of their own divisions and their incapacity to confront the Frankenstein’s monster of Orange sectarianism created by their own past actions.

The story goes back at least to the 1880s. The Grand Old Man of British bourgeois politics, Gladstone, saw that his policy of coercion in Ireland was not working and decided his life’s mission of ‘solving’ the ‘Irish question’ could only be achieved by granting carefully circumscribed powers – ‘Home Rule’ – to an all-Ireland parliament. So convinced was he of the rationality of this scheme that he expected the Tory administration of Lord Salisbury to implement it in 1885.

It was not to be. Although Salisbury – and even his deputy Lord Randolph Churchill – played with the idea in order to gain the support of Irish nationalist MPs for his minority government in 1885, he turned to root and branch opposition a few months later as a way of pulling the Anglo-Irish landowners away from the Liberal Party and of forcing the new Gladstone government out of office. Randolph Churchill crossed to Belfast with the conscious intention of reawakening sectarian hatreds, telling his Ulster Protestant audience, ‘Now is the time to show whether all those ceremonies and forms which are practised in the Orange Lodges are really living symbols or only idle meaningless ceremonies.’

In 1912 Home Rule again seemed the rational solution. The nationalist parliamentarians were even more subdued and ‘moderate’ than they had been in the 1880s. And big business had so little to fear from a Dublin parliament that the chairman of Belfast’s biggest firm, Harland and Wolff, had become a Home Ruler.

Yet again, the rational solution was not the adopted solution. The former Tory solicitor general Edward Carson stirred up Orange hatreds, set up an armed 60,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force and prepared to proclaim a provisional government for the nine counties of the province of Ulster. Carson was a Dublin barrister, without a single trace of an Ulster background, and was opposed by 17 of Ulster’s 33 Westminster MPs. But he had a scheme for denying Home Rule to any part of Ireland which had the full backing of the Tory leader Bonar Law, the remnants of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and many of the top ranks of the British army.

Asquith’s Liberal government huffed and puffed (Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, went as far as to place an armed fleet off the northern Irish coast) – and then agreed to paper over the deep split within the British ruling class by not implementing the very Home Rule measure it had passed into law.

Randolph Churchill plays the Orange card

Randolph Churchill plays the Orange card

The Unionist sabotage of Home Rule created the very thing its instigators feared most – a turn to insurrectionary politics among the traditionally nationalist majority in Ireland. By 1919 four-fifths of Irish MPs were boycotting the Westminster parliament and backing an armed struggle for a republic.

Both the Liberals and the Tories in Lloyd George’s coalition government were desperate to prevent the whole of Ireland seizing independence, seeing it as a terrible example to India, Egypt and other parts of the empire. This led them to arm the Orange gangs of the Belfast area by incorporating them in the Special Constabulary, to encourage a reign of terror against Catholics and Protestant socialists and to set up a Belfast parliament for an area which, by excluding three of the Ulster counties guaranteed a two to one Orange majority.

Yet, even at this stage, neither of the rival sections of the British ruling class were keen on partition as such. Carson, the Anglo-Irish landowners and the hardline Tory ministers were still out to keep all of Ireland under direct British rule. Lloyd George and Churchill himself did not mind a unified Irish parliament, provided its powers were subject to British imperialism’s dictates when it came to major issues of policy. They all viewed the Orange thugs and the new Orange parliament as bargaining tools, designed to impose British terms on the republican forces – something which happened in 1921 when the Irish military leader, Michael Collins, compromised with the British and turned his guns, instead, on the intransigent republicans.

From this point on Southern Ireland was ruled by governments as favourable to capitalist interests, including British capitalist interests, as any in the world. And the traditionally ‘ascendant’ Anglo-Irish aristocracy found it had no difficulty coping with governments run by either wing of the independence movement.

Yet those whose cynicism and brutality had created the Northern Ireland statelet could not simply get rid of it. The British government, just emerging from a war in the south and west of the island, was not prepared to undertake a new military campaign against those who waved the union jack in the north east. They were stuck with it whether they liked it or not.

This was of no greater worry to Britain’s rulers than Frankenstein’s monster was to his master at first. For nearly half a century the statelet did serve the interests of a small coterie of landowners and industrialists in the Belfast area. It did divide the working class of a major industrial city along sectarian lines, enabling right wing politicians to win every election. And it did provide certain military facilities in the event of war, leading a British Labour government to promise it an unlimited lease of life through the Government of Ireland Act of 1948 (although Churchill, with typical cynicism, had only eight years before offered to hand it over to the Southern Irish prime minister De Valera if he joined the military alliance against Germany).

But then in the late 1960s the Catholic minority within the statelet exploded in rebellion – and the explosion threatened to spread to the South. Staff at the Ministry of Defence drew up a list of nine possible options for a stunned Labour government. According to one account, ‘All were bleak. One ended in civil war between North and South. All prophesied an unstoppable escalation in the numbers of troops committed’.

The government was at a complete loss as to know what to do in the summer of 1969. Its cabinet meetings combined strong elements of tragedy and farce. Media coverage was harshly critical of the Northern Ireland government (one editorial in the Financial Times went as far as to see the only hope as lying with the left wing-led students at Queen’s University) and most ministers seemed to believe that it had to be immediately replaced by direct rule from Westminster.

But Denis Healey, as minister of defence, was frightened of committing the number of troops needed to deal with protests by armed Orangemen. Roy Jenkins, then chancellor, privately believing the government should ditch the Northern Ireland state and go for Irish unity, lectured the cabinet: ‘If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the English cannot run Ireland’. At one point, it was reported, ‘the Labour cabinet solemnly asked themselves if there might not be some Oxford academic who could perhaps advise them on Northern Ireland matters’. In the end, James Callaghan, who as home secretary was responsible for the province, went for the apparently easy, but in reality contradictory, option of sending in troops to bolster the authority of the Northern Ireland government while urging it to reform the sectarian structures on which it rested.

At the time he took this decision the IRA was a moribund organisation, with a leadership (later known as the ‘Officials’) which was turning away from any notion of armed struggle. And although the forces of sectarianism among the Protestants were very powerful and capable of drunken, murderous riots against Catholic neighbourhoods, the armed Loyalist groups were miniscule and incapable of doing any serious damage to a British government if it were determined to scrap the statelet.

By its dithering, the Labour government ensured that anger at the behaviour of the Orange state fuelled a new wave of militant republicanism among the Catholics, giving birth to the Provisional IRA – and that British troops allegedly sent to protect the Catholics were soon backing the Orange state in its repression of Catholic areas. At the same time, the gangs of Loyalist thugs were given time to begin to build themselves into a serious paramilitary organisation. By June 1970, Callaghan himself was convinced the Northern Ireland statelet had to go. ‘It’s absurd,’ he said, ‘Here they are, with all the panoply of government – even a prime minister – and a population no bigger than four London boroughs. They don’t need a prime minister, they need a good mayor of Lewisham’.

Yet even at this point, the Labour government did not take decisive action and neither did the Tory government that replaced it. Destroying the Frankenstein’s monster of Orangeism was more than they could bring themselves to do. And so reform always came too little and too late, and in the meantime they could only hold the fort by upping the level of repression in the Catholic areas: an onslaught by the British troops against the Catholic population of the Lower Falls in July 1970, the arrest without trial (’internment’) of several hundred civil rights and republican activists in the summer of 1971, the killing of 13 civil rights demonstrators by the parachute regiment in January 1972.

For a few months it looked as if the shock waves from Bloody Sunday were going to bring about the decisive move by a British government that had been avoided in 1969. As the whole of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland took to the streets in protest and the Southern Irish state proved itself incapable of preventing an angry crowd of tens of thousands burning down the British embassy, the Heath government imposed direct rule from London and, secretly, began face to face negotiations with the IRA, flying Gerry Adams by helicopter straight from an internment camp to see senior minister Willie Whitelaw in London.

The Loyalist veto

The Loyalist veto

Yet decisiveness was the one thing British politicians still found impossible when it came to the Irish question. Talking to the IRA was one thing, confronting the entrenched forces of Orange bigotry another. When Orange mobs resisted Catholics taking over empty council houses in Lenadoon, West Belfast, the British army refused to disperse them. A resumption of what was now a state of war between the troops and the most militant section of the Catholic population was inevitable.

As in 1972 so again in 1974. One of the last actions of Edward Heath’s government, before losing the February 1974 election, had been to set up a ‘power sharing executive’ – effectively a devolved government for Northern Ireland – of the old Unionist Party and the constitutional nationalist SDLP. This was to be involved with the Southern government in a ‘Council of Ireland’ to coordinate action over questions like tourism, public health and agriculture.

The aim was to marginalise the IRA while not upsetting Orange susceptibilities. But any involvement in the government of the province by those who stood, however peacefully, for a united Ireland was a direct challenge to the prejudices inculcated for generations by their rulers into the mass of Protestants, both workers and middle class. A committee of intransigent Loyalist politicians like Paisley, shops stewards from overwhelmingly Protestant workplaces and the Loyalist armed gangs called a general strike – and used armed patrols to make sure any unenthusiastic groups of Protestant workers obeyed the call.

Here was a Loyalist counter-attack directed, not against IRA ‘violence’ or even against ‘interference’ by the Southern government in the affairs of the North, but against a minimal tampering with the old notion of Protestant ascendancy. It was an attack that could have been warded off in the first couple of days, as large numbers of people continued to head for work, if the British army had dismantled the Loyalist barricades and disarmed the Loyalist paramilitaries. But the army commanders took no action. And the Labour government simply dithered. It could have pushed the army to provide decisive backing for the Executive. Or it could have called the Loyalist bluff by announcing withdrawal of both the British army and the British subsidies which sustained the six-county state. It did neither. Within a week the ‘political solution’ to the Irish problem was in tatters.

Nearly 20 years have passed since then. In those years the Vietnam war has been virtually forgotten, the dictatorships that used to rule Portugal, Greece and Spain have passed into oblivion, the Nicaraguan and Iranian revolutions have subsided, there have been two monstrous wars in the Gulf, the USSR has fallen apart, the party of apartheid and its bitterest opponents have agreed to form a joint government. Yet little has changed in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretaries have come and gone, calling conferences of the ‘constitutional’ politicians and then dissolving those conferences when they get nowhere, holding secret talks with Sinn Fein and then abandoning those talks when the Loyalists complain, unable to win the war against the IRA but unable also to solve the grievances that led to the war, all the time maintaining intense repression but unable to stop the IRA shooting soldiers and bombing property or to prevent the Loyalist paramilitaries murdering any Catholic who gets in their way.

John Major has claimed he can succeed where everyone else from Gladstone to Thatcher has failed. And he claims he can do so while relying on the nine Official Unionist MPs to bolster up his parliamentary majority.

He does have a few things going for him. There is deep war weariness among the mass of people on both sides of the sectarian divide. The Sinn Fein leadership virtually admits that the IRA are no closer to achieving their goals today than they were at the time of the 1972 truce, despite the long years of struggles and the hundreds of dead volunteers. The Loyalist organisations have lost some of their old confidence since Margaret Thatcher imposed the Anglo-Irish agreement in the face of their opposition-even if she herself expresses disillusion with the agreement for failing to marginalise the IRA. And among the mass of Protestant workers, as economic crisis undercuts the old sense of supremacy, two contradictory moods arise. One looks to random sectarian murders to put the Catholics in their place and reestablish a mythical golden past, the other reflects a feeling that there must be some way of overcoming the old enmities towards Catholics.

Yet Major himself has nothing to contribute in such a situation. His policy simply consists of hoping that the IRA will give up fighting and that the Loyalist thugs will follow suit. His tactics for achieving it consist of promising all things to all parties.

Maybe war weariness will deliver what the most intricate political manoeuvring has not in the past-after all, even the much more horrendous 16 year long Lebanon civil war eventually ground to a halt. But much more likely is that Major will learn, the hard way, the one thing that hardened opportunist Harold Wilson already understood in 1964: ‘Any politician who wants to get involved in Ulster ought to have his head examined.’

If there is real hope in the present situation it does not lie with Major any more than it lay with Gladstone in 1886, with Asquith in 1912, with Lloyd George in 1921, with Wilson in 1969 and 1974 or with Heath in 1972. It lies in the way in which the impasse of the IRA military strategy is leading some influenced by that tradition to look for a different way of fighting the state at the same time as some Protestant workers at least are beginning to question old Loyalist assumptions.

But to take advantage of such conditions requires the development of socialist politics among Northern Ireland’s workers, both Catholic and Protestant. The nationalist politics of Sinn Fein mean it can see only two choices – to continue with a military struggle which is going nowhere or to follow the equally futile path of sitting at a conference table with Major, Molyneux, Paisley and Hume. Socialists, however, insist there is a third option. There is a mood among some sections of Protestant workers which provides the slim chance, for the first time for more than a quarter of a century, of involving them in a fight alongside Catholic workers and against the employers, the state and the Loyalist murder gangs. And such a fight would in reality open up the possibility of destroying sectarianism once and for all.

Last updated on 24 February 2017