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International Socialism, April-June 1972


Brian Trench

The Two Nations Fallacy


From International Socialism (1st series), No.51, April-June 1972, pp.23-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The problems facing Irish revolutionaries revolve to a large extent around the theoretical and practical attitude to the Protestant (Orange) section of the working class. The problem is to integrate national demands, which presently divide the working class, into a programme for a Workers’ Republic which can only be brought about – or maintained – by united working-class action. Unfortunately, this complexity of the Irish question is reflected in confusion of ideas on the republican and socialist Left.

Most prominent and distinct of the confusing ideas is the ‘two nations’ theory. It is gathering some credence among left-wingers who have despaired of accomplishing the task outlined above. It has been most developed by a reactionary Stalinist sect, the Irish Communist Organisation. This group moved within the course of one year from describing Paisleyites as fascists to seeing them as the organised expression of legitimate Protestant national demands. They see the Northern Protestants as a separate nationality, whose democratic right to remain a part of the United Kingdom must be recognised.

In adopting this position, the Irish Communist Organisation, and others who have since followed them, condemned themselves to inactivity. While state forces attacked the opponents of the Unionist regime, and the nationalist population in general, the advocates of the ‘two nations’ theory were so concerned with distancing themselves from supposed Catholic nationalist desires to oppress the Protestants, that they were unable to oppose the actual repression! Thus it was, that one month after the introduction of internment in August 1971, a leaflet was published by the ‘Workers’ Association for the Democratic Settlement of the National Conflict in Ireland’, which omitted to mention internment or repression. Nor was there any mention of the role of the British Army or of British imperialism.

To most socialists this alone would condemn the ‘two nations’ theory and its advocates to irrelevance. But. as the polarisation between the Protestant and Catholic communities increased, and the possibilities of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist propaganda among the Protestant working class appeared to decrease, the ‘two nations’ position has gathered support in radical circles. The argument has a certain plausibility; it appears to answer the main problems quite simply. In some cases, people have come to this position out of a genuine desire to find a distinct proletarian perspective, and a possibility of gaining access to the Protestant working class. There is little sign, however, that they are succeeding in the latter objective. ‘Loyalism’ identifies Communism with Catholicism.

Some would argue that to take the ‘two nations’ position would not necessarily mean that one is silent about military and political repression. It is clear that advocates of the ‘two nations’ have not worked out in full the practical conclusions of their theory. Nor will they necessarily come to the same conclusion. It seems to us, however, that to argue that the Protestants of North-East Ireland constitute a nation, whose national rights the Catholics aim to suppress, must inevitably lead to a defence of the Orange state and support for the presence of British troops.

It is no accident that the theory was first elaborated by W.F. Monypenny, a reactionary journalist with The Times who, in 1912, gave his support to the anti-Home Rule movement with a series of articles, later published as a book, entitled The Two Irish Nations. Monypenny argued that, whether one liked it or not, there were two nations; ‘there is no question of right or wrong, of reasonableness or unreasonableness, involved in the matter; it is a case of separate traditions, separate creeds, separate ideals – in a word, separate nationalities’. (p66) Other conservative politicians of the time who supported the Unionist cause in opposing independence for any part of Ireland also referred to the ‘two peoples’, or ‘two nations’, in Ireland. R.S. McNeill, later Lord Cushendun, and a minister of the first Unionist government, wrote in 1922 of ‘Ulster’s Stand for the Union’, and propagated the ‘two nations’ idea there.

Such antecedents would appear overwhelming evidence for the incompatibility of this theory with socialism. But they have not deterred its contemporary proponents, who consider that all who oppose the partition of Ireland are tarred with the same ‘Catholic nationalist’ brush. To be compromised with that position, they say, is to be incapable of developing a proletarian-revolutionary strategy. In saying this, they assume that nationalism is absolutely incompatible with, indeed opposed to, socialism. There is, therefore, more at stake in this argument than the matter of determining whether or not the Protestants constitute a nation. The argument brings into focus the revolutionary, Marxist attitude to the national question.

Marxism and the National Question

There are a number of possible ways of determining whether a group of people are a nation. But Marxists are interested in more than mere definitions. They are interested in the role social groups play in historical struggle. They are interested in ascertaining the working class interest in any particular struggle.

Advocates of the thesis that the Ulster Protestants are a nation have usually taken the definition given by Stalin in The Bolsheviks and the National Question (1913), and attempted to test the Protestants against each of the four criteria enumerated there. ‘A nation is an historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.’ Awarding the Protestants a certain number of marks on each item, they conclude: Yes; the Protestants are a nation. Yes, their right to self-determination must be defended. Nothing could have less to do with the Marxist method. The analysis is static and arbitrary.

It has been necessary for ‘two nations’ advocates to use this method, because the even more obvious one of asking: have the Protestants seen themselves as a nation? have they defined their opposition to Home Rule, etc, as a struggle for national rights? gives the wrong answers. Ulster Protestants have not claimed to be a nationality. Thus we apparently have the phenomenon of a national movement without a national consciousness.

The reasons given by Unionists for opposing Home Rule, and now for opposing a united Ireland are various. They relate to religious and civil liberties and the need to defend Protestantism against the authoritarian Catholic Church; they relate to the ‘inevitable economic ruin’ which such a change would cause, and to their ‘cherished position as citizens of the United Kingdom’. This is only evidence of something which any experience of the Northern Irish situation bears out: that the Protestants have a confused cultural and national identity. That fact is itself reflected in the various designations given them by ‘two nations’ advocates: ‘British’; ‘a distinct Irish nationality’; ‘Ulster Protestant’; ‘Northern Irish Protestant nationality’; etc.

Even assuming that any of these methods of discerning nationality were adequate, and that they led to the conclusion that the Protestants are a nation, would this mean that socialists and revolutionaries campaign for their right to national self-determination? Not necessarily. What determines the revolutionary attitude to such claims in the perspective of international, proletarian revolution, the relation of the national struggle to imperialism, and the effect of pursuing those national demands on the relations between classes within that nation, and on a world scale. What Lenin’s writings on the subject teach us is that there are no universal principles, only the guidelines of the struggle for international socialism.

‘The proletariat ... values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle.’ (Right of Nations to Self-Determination)

Socialists support some national struggles; they do not support others. They may even change their attitude as events unfold. Hence, as the demands of the Sudeten Germans changed from being the demands of a minority within the framework of the Czechoslovak Republic to (effectively) demands to strengthen the hand of German fascists expansionism in that part of the world, the attitude of revolutionaries to their national demands changed. The Comintern of the 1920’s supported the former; the anti-Stalinist revolutionaries of the 1930’s opposed the latter.

There are progressive nationalisms and reactionary nationalisms. Even if we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that the Northern Protestants are a nationality, their ‘national’ demands are pro-imperialist. This does not mean that at every stage the Orange movement is in agreement with the designs of imperialism for Ireland; even less does it mean that the Orange movement is steered by the imperialists. The main thrust of the movement is to demand that Northern Ireland (previously the whole of Ireland) remain a part of the United Kingdom, thus strengthening the power of British imperialism in Ireland. Furthermore, the effect of pursuing the ‘national’ demands of the Ulster Protestants can only be to weld closer together the classes within that community. The contrast with the Irish national (or republican) tradition is obvious: to fight for the separation of Ireland from Britain, and for its unification, is to challenge the economic and political power of British imperialism in Ireland. As the national bourgeoisie proves itself unable – in the age of, monopoly capitalism and permanent revolution – to lead that struggle for national independence and unity, the continuation of the fight leads to a heightening contradiction , betweeen the classes. However critical revolutionaries may be of many manifestations of the nationalist tradition, and however much they may take account of the objections of Protestants to a united Ireland, they determine their role in the struggle according to that fundamental historical difference.

The difference is of political relevance in so far as it relates to the over-riding factor determining economic and political development in Ireland, i.e. colonial and imperialist domination. There are some who, without drawing the full conclusions of ‘two nations’, tend to equate the two traditions, and who see little essential difference, say, between Protestants marching in support of internment, and Catholics demonstrating against discrimination. This simple argument, which relates the Orange and the Green to imperialism, and to the international power relations, gives the lie to them. Even W.F. Monypenny partially recognised the difference outlined above when he wrote in passages which his contemporary successors do not quote:

‘If among the Roman Catholics there is still something of the spirit of revolted slaves, there is among the Protestants something of the spirit of overthrown oppressors’. (p.66)

‘The Protestants have to bear the greater load of guilt for the crimes of the past’. (p.67)

The key question of the relation to the centres of world power determines the revolutionary attitude to the legitimacy of the republican struggle. It is still true, however, that, in spite of its recent leftwards movement, the republican movement has not been able to formulate a consistently revolutionary attitude to the question of the Northern Protestants. This is not because that movement is guided by the Catholic nationalist desire to suppress the Protestants; it is an integral part of its failure to understand the class content of the anti-imperialist struggle, the role of the working class in that struggle, and the need for an independent, revolutionary party of the proletariat. In considering the question of the Protestant workers, as in analysing recent economic and political developments in both Irish states, we return again to the central problem of the Irish revolution at the present time; the struggle for socialist leadership of the anti-imperialist movement, and the building of a revolutionary party.

In summary: the protestants do not constitute a nation and even if they did revolutionaries are not automatically committed to support all strivings for national self-determination, and they are certainly not committed to take up a campaign for self-determination on behalf of every (statically) discernible nation. The right to self-determination is only meaningful in the context of national oppression. The oppression of the alleged Protestant ‘nation’ is, in the view of the ‘two nations’ advocates, only prospective. They completely over-estimate the capacity of the Irish national bourgeoisie, in power in Dublin, to complete the national-bourgeois revolution. Protestant nationalism – if such there be – is reactionary. Some of the proponents of Protestant nationality have drawn the consequences quite unashamedly. They defend the ‘democratic validity of the Northern Irish state’; they support the presence of the British Army in the Six Counties; they see the present leaders of the Unionist Party as men who have betrayed the Protestant nation, and Jack Lynch (Southern Prime Minister), as the material and political force he represents, as the ‘main enemy’ in the struggle for democracy and socialism in Ireland. To be quite consistent with the view of the Protestants as a (potentially) oppressed nation they should go further; they should oppose Paisley and Craig for their petit-bourgeois limitations, and work for proletarian leadership of the oppressed nationality; in any confrontation between the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force – ultra-loyalist allied body) and the IRA, they should support the UVF; in any confrontation between the IRA and the British Army, they should support the British Army.

Advocates of the ‘two nations’ thesis shrink from openly adopting these positions for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that they are too evidently ridiculous. The other is that they seem unwilling, or unable, to think out the implications of their position. Having virtually discounted the role of colonialism and imperialism in arriving at the original position, this is hardly surprising. Their arguments on self-determination have very little to do with Lenin’s statement:

‘The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation [my emphasis – BT ] from the oppressor nation.’

The Birth of Orangeism

Politically, the ‘two nations’ thesis has nothing to recommend it to revolutionaries. However, the proponents of the theory insist that the facts speak clearly for it; they represent the difference between those who say that there is only one nation in Ireland, and those who say there are two, as the difference between mythology and facts.

Nobody could pretend that the historical analysis is unproblematic. What any examination of the historical development of the two communities hi the context of the overall relation between Ireland and Britain must explain is the continuing strength of the Orange-Unionist idealogy among the Protestant masses. The ‘two nations’ theory appears to explain this, but on the basis of very dubious historical research, which largely consists of quoting Unionist propaganda as statement of fact.

Ever since the Plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century the conflicts between planter (Protestant) and native (Catholic) have been carried out alongside contradictions within both communities, and across the communal divide, along class-lines. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the law, the social order, and economic relations (land-holding and possibilities of accumulation) favoured Protestants. There were intense agrarian conflicts between Catholic and Protestant peasants on each occasion of lease renewal. At the same time, there was militant action by Protestant tenants against Protestant landlords. The differences within the settler camp coincided to some extent with differences between Episcopalian and Dissenter: It was largely Presbyterian middle-class elements who organised in support of the French Revolution, and for an Irish national revolution, under the title of the United Irishmen. Wolfe Tone and his colleagues forged an ideology of Irish nationalism to unite ‘Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter’.

It was largely Anglicans (Episcopalians), on the other hand, who were recruited to the Orange Order, founded in 1795, soon after the United Irishmen. The Orange Order had the support, and active encouragement of landlords, but it did also have a popular base. It was not foisted on to the people from London. It did not need to be.

Although the number of Protestants involved in the United Irishmen was relatively small, it was clear after the 1798 Rebellion that the

‘... Protestant population could no longer be seen as merely an alien British garrison in Ireland – the equivalent of the French colons in Algeria. But neither could they be seen as a second and separate nation in Ireland since their most progressive section had deliberately identified themselves with, even created, the concept of revolutionary Irish nationalism.’ (M. Farrell, Northern Star No. 5)

Advocates of the ‘two nations’ theory do not disagree with the view that in the late part of the 18th century there was developing in Ireland one nation, and one nationalism. However, they maintain that there was a break in the historical development following the Act of Union (1801), and, indeed, a second break in the 1880’s. For all that was carried over from previous decades – land competition, the system of privileges, the Orange Order, its landlord support and popular base, and the strands of progressive Irish nationalism – it is maintained that two nations were formed, with conflicting interests.

What did happen following the enactment of the Union was that the uneven development of capitalism, for which the basis had been laid in ‘Ulster Custom’, the system of land-tenure peculiar to that region, was sharpened and accelerated. While the Southern industries were destroyed – as deliberate policy of the London government – the Northern textile (linen) and engineering (textile machinery, later shipbuilding) industries developed as an integral part of British industrial capitalism. There was no separate capital market from Britain, and the industry of North-East Ulster shared the outlets of the expanding British Empire. The Ulster bourgeoisie had some advantage over English counterparts; the competition for jobs between Catholics and Protestants enabled them to hold wages down and prevent combination. Wage-rates have been lower, and workers’ organisations weaker in North-East Ulster than, for instance, in those areas with which Belfast formed an industrial-commercial triangle, Merseyside and Clydeside.

The ‘two nations’ advocates have insisted sufficiently on the uneven development of capitalism in Ireland, as the basis for Partition. They claim that Protestant and Catholic bourgeoisie had ‘no common economic history’. What is missing from their account is the combined character of the economic development. This is of especial political relevance when we see how the responses of the backward Southern (and Catholic) bourgeoisie to the new situation reinforced sectarianism between Northern workers, and helped maintain the high rate of exploitation.

The Catholic Bourgeoisie

The rise of O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation movement, the Repeal movement, and Young Ireland, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, is, for proponents.of the ‘two nations’ position the evidence of a new nation and a new nationalism, more and more obviously defined by expansionist aims vis-a-vis Ulster.

‘The ideology of Irish Catholic nationalism was forged by Thomas Davis in the 1840’s. The movement which assimilated it was that developed by O’Connell in the Catholic Emancipation movement and continued in the Repeal agitation.’ (Irish Communist, April 1971)

This is seen as ‘a quite separate and distinct movement from 1798’ (Eamonn O’Kane, in Socialist Monthly, August 1971). In the shift from one section of the bourgeoisie to another it was inevitable that the precise ideological expression of Irish national interests would change. The difference between the two sections of the bourgeoisie is, however, not essentially one of religion, but one of the relation to landed property and capital, one of disposal over the means of production. The Southern, Catholic bourgeoisie was a ‘gombeen’ middle-class, that is, mainly dependent on being able to service the landlord system. The ‘two nations’ view makes them into potential predator-imperialists.

O’Connell’s rantings against the Orange Order certainly helped promote anti-Popery in the North. Catholic Emancipation itself, which removed the religious barriers against franchise, public services, etc., but raised the property qualifications for electors, encouraged resentment of lower class Protestants. After O’Connell, the movement against the Union, and, to a lesser extent, the movement for land reform became increasingly identified with Catholicism. But the most radical elements in the national movement always harked back to Wolfe Tone’s message of the unity of Irishmen of all denominations. They were often bitterly opposed by the Catholic Church. O’Connell was also vigorously anti-trade unions, as was the virulently anti-Catholic tendency in the Presbyterian Church. In spite of this, and in spite of different relations to the land problem, there was joint action by Catholic and Protestant peasants in the period 1850-52. Protestant tenants were later active in the Land League. Michael Davitt spoke at a Land League meeting in Co. Armagh in 1881 which was chaired by the master of the local Orange lodge. Some of the Tory landlords supported the Land Act of the same year which granted the ‘three Fs’ (fixity of tenure, fair rent, free sale), fearing that otherwise Ulster might follow Davitt and go nationalist, But joint action between Catholic and Protestant tenants was not sustained over a long period. Nor was any joint action between industrial workers in the Belfast area. In many ways, the patterns of agrarian life were transferred to the fast-growing city; Catholics and Protestants lived in distinct areas. Serious rioting between Catholic and Protestant workers in Belfast began in the 1850’s. It was often deliberately stirred up by preachers such as Henry Cooke and Hugh Hanna who were key figures in winning popular support for opposition to any reform measures which the aristocracy wanted to see defeated. The upper classes expressed their appreciation at Cooke’s funeral; 154 carriages of gentry were reported present. (Owen Dudley Edwards, Sins of our Fathers, p.78.) Cooke’s ascendancy within the Presbyterian Church had marked the total reversal of Presbyterian attitudes from the 1780’s and 1790’s. It would be facile to represent the whole Orange movement, and the popular strength of anti-Catholicism as merely the result of manoeuvre by the landlords and the gentry. However, the control of the Orange movement never left their hands. Each reform measure which the more enlightened self-interest of the Whig bourgeoisie, and the pressure of the Irish MP’s and the Irish land and national movement, dictated, and which appeared to challenge the privileged position of Protestants, afforded an opportunity to strengthen anti-Catholic and anti-national feeling among Protestants. Thus, the Disestablishment of the Anglican Church called forth warnings to Mr Gladstone from Rev Henry Henderson that he ‘and his co-conspirators were driving the country into civil war.’ (Speech of June 1869, quoted in the nationalist pamphlet, The Orange Bogey, from the Daily Express.) The role of the Catholic clergy in nationalist politics gave preachers like Henderson material enough to instil bigotry into Protestants. After the Catholic hierarchy had played its part in ending Parnell’s career, politics in Ireland became increasingly sectarian. The basis was well laid to arouse mass support among Protestants for a campaign against Home Rule.

To complicate the picture it should be pointed out that in 1871 a Protestant Home Rule Association was formed in Belfast, and that, in the same year, a resolution was passed at the Grand Orange Lodge in Dublin, ‘that all statements and provisions in the objects, rules, and formularies of the Orange institution, which impose any obligation upon its members to maintain the Legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland, be expunged therefrom’. Some progressive strands did survive within the Protestant community from the late 18th century. There was conscious reference by some to that heritage.

The Anti-National Movement

Above all, the Ulster bourgeoisie had no national aspirations.

‘The Ulster Unionists never demanded an independent nation state or expressed any interest in it. Their slogan was “Ulster is British” and their flag was the Union Jack.’ (M Farrell, p.30)

The Ulster bourgeoisie was sometimes at odds with the landlords who were the main instigaters of anti-Home Rule. But it benefitted from the strength of sectarian feeling among the workers. As D.R.O’C. Lysaght has phrased it:

‘By 1886, Ulster industrialism was, in its way, even more dependent on the Catholic Church than the gombeenmen of that religion.’ (Paper to the Socialist Labour Alliance, 1971)

In 1886, when Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill closed Protestant ranks still more firmly, the Rev Henry Henderson wrote in the Belfast Newsletter: ‘I believe myself that if we can stir up the religious feeling ... we have won.’ It was the emergence of a more vigorous bourgeoisie and small scale industry in the South which put Home Rule – and, indeed, more radical solutions – on the agenda. The interests of the Southern bourgeoisie, and more especially the petit-bourgeoisie, in acquiring protection for their enterprise were not compatible with those of the Ulster bourgeoisie. Thus the Ulster bourgeoisie lined up with the Tory-landlord opposition to Home Rule. The deliberate playing of ‘the Orange card’ and the activities of elements of the nationalist movement welded together the popular support. Carson, the Unionist leader, and his colleagues were able to represent their position as an opposition to ‘tyranny and coercion; against condemnation to servitude; against deprivation of the right of citizens to an effective voice in the government of their country’. (Marquis of Londonderry, in Against Home Rule, London 1912, p.164.)

The two nations argument was also used occasionally to give ‘substance’ to a pseudo-democratic opposition to Home Rule, But Thomas Sinclair spelt out to British readers what he thought was characteristic of the Protestant ‘people’, i.e. Their ‘sympathy with the world mission of the British Empire in the interests of civil and religious freedom’. (Against Home Rule, p.173)

It is quite absurd for the contemporary advocates of the ‘two nations’ position to argue that ‘until 1886 the development of politics along clear class lines had been proceeding in Ulster’. (Birth of Ulster Unionism, p.20) Any purely narrative history of sectarian riots in Belfast and in the northern countryside would refute this claim. It is precisely the tragedy of the Irish working class that it was not able to develop its own independent class politics during the period of Belfast’s expansion. It was unable to overcome the insidious influence of religious sectarianism and resist manipulation by the exploiting classes. Trade unionism was slow to develop, and when there was a beginning of class solidarity in the first decade of the 20th century, it was broken ‘first by Devlinism, then by Carsonism’. (Sins of our Fathers, p.167) Joseph Devlin was the Nationalist MP for West Belfast, and a member of the Hibernians, which was dominated by clerical influences, and strongly anti-Trade Union. James Connolly wrote: ‘Were it not for the Board of Erin [similar to the Hibernians – BT], the Orange Society would long since have ceased to exist. To Brother Devlin (Grand Master, AOH) [Ancient Order of Hibernians – BT], and not Brother Carson is mainly due the progress of the Covenanting Movement in Ulster.’ (Quoted in T.A. Jackson, Ireland Her Own, p.375). The ‘Covenanting Movement’ was the movement in support of the Ulster Covenant signed in 1912 by over 500,000 persons who played their support for all opposition to the Home Rule ‘conspiracy’, and swore to fight it by arms if necessary.

Connolly understood the responsibility of the Catholic bourgeoisie in fostering anti-Catholicism among the Protestant workers, but he did not understand in practice how to counteract the twin influences which fractured the working class. He often appears to have thought that it was sufficient to spell out to Protestant workers the extent of their exploitation for them to see through the deceptions of their bosses. But the key issue then, as it is today, was to confront the ideology and politics of Orangeism ideologically and politically. If there were few Dublin workers who fully understood Connolly’s position on the ‘cause of Ireland’ and ‘the cause of Labour’, there were even fewer Belfast workers who understood it.

The Sectarian Tragedy

In so far as they came to Socialist views, Protestant workers tended to take the position of William Walker, ILP organiser in Belfast, who argued that the issue of national independence was irrelevant, indeed contrary, to the struggle for socialism. Connolly debated with Walker vigorously; experience has proven him correct in thinking that the ‘Walkerite’ position does not allow workers who adopt it to maintain a struggle against the Orange bosses. Orangeism or Walkerism have not, however, wholly prevented Protestant workers from fighting sophisticated economic struggles.

On a number of occasions these have been fought in unity with Catholic workers. In 1907, for instance, the Dock Strike and police mutiny led to a total disruption of Belfast industry. Support came from both Catholic and Protestant working class districts. On 12th July (‘Orange Day’), the Independent Orange Order held a collection for the strikes at its rally. The IOO, which was a breakaway from the main Orange body, combined resolute anti-Catholicism with class resentment at the treatment of fellow (Orange) workers. Lindsay Crawford, a leader of the IOO, did not exclude the possibility of joint activity with Catholic workers, on condition that ‘the Irish Roman Catholic places the reasonable claims of his country before the impossible demands of his Church’. The IOO Manifesto stated that ‘it is not too much to hope for that they [Protestant and Catholic – BT] will reconsider their position and in their common trials unite on a basis of nationality’. (Both quoted by Joseph Quigley in Northern Star, Autumn 1970) The solidarity of 1907 was quickly broken, as was the solidarity of 1919, and of 1932-34. The attempts to ‘keep politics out’ meant that they rebounded even more sharply. Following the strike in 1919 of 40,000 Northern workers in support of the British labour movement’s demand for a 44-hour week, the events of the independence struggle in the South, depicted as acts of terror, offered the Unionists an easy opportunity to destroy any militant unity of workers. In May 1920 Unionist leaders called for a show of arms in the shipyards in Belfast. Not only the Catholics, but also the militants of the previous year’s strike, were driven out. The patterns of communal politics were so routine that it often did not require active intervention from outside the working class to break solidarity. There were enough religious sectarians in every sector of the Protestant working class, and there was no real political force in the working class movement which argued the primacy of the class struggle, and the working class’s interest in defeating British imperialism in Ireland.

The formation of the Northern state, and the institutionalisation of Protestant privileges which were previously largely informal, has added a new plank to the arsenal of Unionist ideology: defence of the Constitution. The state embodies the notions of Protestant ascendancy. Founded on the power of the Unionist all-class alliance it could only have been fundamentally sectarian. For the advocates of the ‘two nations’, it is the legitimate expression of Protestant national aspirations, although the objective of the supposed national movement was never declared to be a separate state. Thus they can claim that a state built on Protestant ascendancy, discrimination, gerrymander, and repression used primarily against Catholics is only driven to such measures by the disruption activities of the Catholic bourgeoisie. It is ‘the Catholic bourgeoisie which has been the cause of the 50 years of conflict in Northern Ireland’. (Irish Communist, April 1971) ‘The Catholic bourgeoisie has been largely responsible for the antagonisms in the North.’ (Communist Comment, 30th January 1971) This latter comment was made in uncritical support of statements by a Unionist government minister, Roy Bradford.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the behaviour of the Catholic Church, and of the nationalist bourgeoisie, has consistently nurtured and amplified anti-Catholicism among Northern Protestants. Since the partition settlement in 1921 the situation is unchanged. The control over education which the Catholic Church asserts both North and South has fed the Protestant fear of clerical domination of public and private life. The Southern state gives the Catholic Church a special status; as far as many Northern Protestants are concerned, the Twenty Six Counties are ruled not from Dublin, but from Maynooth (Catholic seminary). There is sufficient truth in this, and there has been enough encouragement given to the notion by Unionist propagandists of the Northern state to implant it as a stereotype response to any invitation to consider alternative political arrangements. Furthermore, the patronage and corruption among bourgeois Nationalists in the Six Counties has in many ways mirrored the patterns established by the Orange Unionist leaders. Direct support from Britain, higher living standards, better social services, have served to strengthen the conviction of the Northern Protestant masses that their economic interests are best met in continuing Union with Britain. The ‘step-by-step’ extension of the provisions of the British Welfare State to the Six Counties have cushioned conflict between the communities in the North, but it has reinforced (Protestant) objections to any attempt to end the Border. The changing pattern of investment in Ireland since the 1950’s, the changing role of monopoly capitalism in both parts of the country, has decreased the economic significance of the Border. It has made the Northern state an embarrassment and an anachronism to the British ruling class. Sections of the Northern bourgeoisie have begun to accept ideas of a federal solution transitional to a united Ireland. But they must determine the pace, not the militant republicans.

Their ‘constituency’ – the Protestant petit-bourgeoisie and working class – has not adapted itself so easily to a changed situation. The petit-bourgeoisie threatened by the penetration of large-scale international capital has known no other response than retreat into extreme ‘loyalism’, lately compounded by UDI illusions – something only possible given unlikely British indifference. The Protestant working class, whose privileges are under attack, has largely responded in like (or more violent) manner.

Northern Ireland demonstrates the possibilities of contradiction between base and superstructure, the different rate of change of economic and ideological structures. Objective historical developments are working to undermine Orangeism; the traditional industries on which the power of the Ulster bourgeoisie was built are declining. The changes necessitate the integration of the Catholic middle-class into the Northern political structure. Yet the explosion of 1969, and subsequent events, have polarised attitudes along traditional, communal lines. It is this ‘relative autonomy’ of ideology, and the non-completion of the national revolution, which means that simple class-versus-class, first-principles programme offers less chance of intervention in the class struggle in Ireland than elsewhere. It is also this ‘relative autonomy’ of ideology which has misled certain people to deduce from the strength of loyalist consciousness, with certain traits of a national consciousness, the existence, and the legitimate rights, of a Protestant nation.

The Only Road

The tasks of revolutionaries faced with this situation is to couple the principal and immediate objective of destruction of the Northern state with a comprehensive working class programme designed to weaken the hold of Orangeism on the Protestant working class and prepare the situation in which they become an active force in making the socialist, revolution. In isolation, the movement to abolish Stormont can easily be seen by Protestant workers as an attack on them. They may well think – as the ‘two nations’ advocates would persuade them – that the Southern bourgeoisie wishes to annex the Northern territory and suppress civil and religious liberties. This is, of course, the very opposite of what the Southern bourgeoisie wants; they wish most to make their peace with British imperialism, and find a modus vivendi with the Unionists in an Ireland dominated by monopoly capitalism.

There is a sense in which the Southern bourgeoisie, and the ] state it has built, can be seen as the main enemy. It is not because they are militantly nationalist, but because they succeed in deluding people that they are. It is not because they are organising to annex the North, but because the reactionary Southern state, its economic backwardness, and the privileged position of the Catholic Church within it reinforces all possible objections of Protestants to a Thirty-Two County Republic.

Therefore, the demand for the end of Stormont is part of an overall strategy for Thirty-Two Counties. Socialists must work for the dismantling of the apparatus of discrimination and repression in the North. In the perspective of building a force to overthrow both Irish states, they must demand total separation of Church and State, a free and comprehensive education system under control of pupils, parents, and teachers, a free and comprehensive health service, abortion and contraception on demand, etc. A series of demands which points clearly to the necessity of the Workers’ Republic being secular has its important place in a revolutionary programme for Ireland today. Such demands are of immediate importance for building a revolutionary tendency among Catholic and Southern workers and it is of longer-term relevance in penetrating the Protestant section of the working class. There is little or no chance of breaching the barrier of Orangeism unless this kind of perspective is put forward, and fought for, among Catholic workers.

There are social democrats who insist that a united Ireland must be secular. Some of them simply mouth secularism without being able to carry out a thorough opposition to sectarianism and clericalism. But the real line of demarcation is the class content; anti-sectarian and anti-clerical positions only have their real weight in the context of an anti-capitalist perspective: to forge the working class unity which is a first guarantee of maintaining a Workers’ Republic. The class struggle is the key to the national question. The class struggle is the key to the ‘religious’ question.

It is only in the context of a Workers’ Republic, defending working-class power, that any question of cultural autonomy for Protestants could be considered. The primary task is the restoration of the Irish territory to the Irish people; this can only be achieved in the course of a proletarian revolution, fought for and sustained by a united working class. The Protestants are a part of the Irish nation, whose unity will be established in the only possible Irish revolution, the proletarian revolution.

‘Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it.’ (Lenin)

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Last updated on 25.10.2006