Karl Kautsky


4. Ireland in the 20th Century

a) Ulster

The north-east corner of Ireland, the eastern part of the county of Ulster is a peculiar part of Ireland. It is the only part of Ireland in which protestants are in the majority and in which a strong industry has developed.

Like the rest of Ireland this territory was taken away from its original inhabitants by foreign invaders, but these were invaders of a special kind. They were from Scotland, not England; they were not conquering, plundering feudal lords, but political fugitives, living by their own labour.

The Reformation in England and Scotland was not simply a protestant battle against catholic power, but also a battle of protestants amongst themselves: on the one side royalty and nobility and the submissive state-church and on the other side the rising democratic classes, who were organised in sects with republican and anti-feudal tendencies.

When it was able to, the state-church persecuted these dissenters just as gruesomely as the Catholics. Many of the dissenters had to flee in the struggles of the 17th century. Most of the English dissenters sought refuge in Holland or in the English colonies in North America. The Scottish dissenters preferred the north-east of Ireland, which was near their home, as a place of refuge. [4]

Most of them were handicraftsmen. With them that part of Ireland facing Scotland gained something it did not otherwise have: an industrial, hardworking population. But it also gained a population of religious, puritanical fanatics.

They naturally despised catholicism – as a wretched heresy. But in Ireland, as in Scotland, the greater enemy (because it was the more powerful), was the state-church and the royal power. So long as the catholics remained weak and without rights, Ulster stood at the head of the Irish radical, democratic movement against English state-power.

Whilst the rest-of Ireland decayed economically after the Reformation, Ulster advanced. England’s offensive against Irish industry in the 18th century caused most destruction in the woollen industry, which was centred in the catholic South. Ulster’s prosperity rested on the linen industry and shipbuilding. These seemed less of a danger to the English capitalists and were left untouched. [5]

Ulster was, therefore, well prepared for the capitalist upsurge in the British state in the 19th century, a generous share of which fell to it.

With the increase in the industrial population the power of the state-church decreased. In 1829 the Dissenters (who had been the least tolerated section in the British state since 1689), were like the Catholics given political equality of rights.

Now Ulster’s attitude was transformed. The enemy was no longer the English state with its established Church, but the Catholic majority in Ireland itself, which was increasing its power rapidly. If the better-educated, prosperous, hard-working Ulstermen had up to then looked down disparagingly at the Irish catholics because of their ignorance, their dirty poverty, their apathy resulting from despair, now they were filled with fear and with fear-engendered hatred (which is the worst kind) of the Irish – now battling actively and, successfully for their further development.

The most energetic champions of a free Ireland now became its most violent enemies. The old religious fanaticism of the Presbyterians was kindled anew, and their ideology found fresh strength in the new social and political circumstances. The more England ceased to be the worst enemy of Irish Home Rule, the more Irish Ulster itself took her place. And this contradiction overshadowed all class contradictions. In Ulster’s cities, especially Belfast, bloody fights between protestant and catholic workers took place endlessly. [6]

As Home Rule, sneeringly described as Rome Rule, came nearer, the Ulster people increasingly remembered their rebellious traditions and became more and more violent not merely to Ireland, but also to England, which wished to give independence to Ireland.

Immediately a majority for Home Rule was assured in the English Parliament, and the Upper Horse had lost its power to prevent it, Ulster prepared for armed resistance against the Irish Parliament to be imposed on them.

There arose an army of Volunteers, who armed themselves and drilled with weapons: And the warning of armed-resistance was no empty threat. It was given substance by the fact that a large, section of the English officer-corps let it be known that it would not allow itself to be used against Ulster. On the other side the Irish prepared for the overthrow of Ulster.

The British state seemed on the verge of civil war when the English Parliament refused to be intimidated (by Ulster) and voted for the Government’s Home Rule Bill in the summer of 1914 – at the very time when (Kaiser) William kindled the world war with his support of the mad and criminal Vienna Policies,

William and his followers would certainly have been less light-hearted in playing with fire had they not assumed England, crippled by the Irish conflict, would leave Russia and France (to fight) alone.

In this and other respects they were wrong. The general feeling for the war immediately defeated that for the civil war lobby. The implementation of Home Rule was postponed. Thus the people of Ulster were conciliated, as were their military supporters, who like the military in every nation have a liking for war. However, the majority of the Irish had been brought closer to England by the proposed Home Rule. England treated these carefully: compulsory military service, which became necessary during the war, was not extended to Ireland. However, the recruiting of volunteers yielded quite good results there, if not quite as good as in England and Scotland.

If the war had been short, the general patriotism it caused would perhaps have served to bring about Home Rule peacefully. However it dragged on, and the longer it lasted the more influence the military and their spirit gained, even in England, where the military had formerly had little say.

In these days when the democratic spirit has been: universally accepted by the masses of the people, the spirit of violence, engendered by militarism and war, must invariably have an evil effect, not only on those against whom it is directed, but also on those who direct it, because it is so contradictory to the needs of political circumstances. Germany learnt this before and during the war; France, whose security is threatened by nothing but the military spirit, which is penetrating it and isolating it from the rest of the world, is learning it today: England learnt it during the war, and for a time after it from her Irish policies.




4. Kautsky does not mention the official Plantation of six Ulster counties. This is a mistake on the right side – when compared with Catholic nationalist histories which focus attention on the official Plantation at the expense of the more substantial settlement of Antrim and Down by spontaneous migration.

5. Here again Kautsky explains industrial development or decline as consequences of English economic policy, and without reference to internal social conditions in the various parts of Ireland, which in fact were the more important factors. See Economics of Partition, Athol Books.

6. For a more adequate account of the resurgence of “the old religious fanaticism of the Presbyterians” in the 19th century and of how it related to the development of the Catholic nationalist movement under the hegemony of an increasingly powerful Ultramontanist Catholic hierarchy, see Ulster As It Is, Athol Books.


Last updated on 20.1.2004