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Ireland: A Special Survey

International Socialism, October 1976


Des Derwin et al.

Ireland: A Special Survey

The Protestant Working Class

From International Socialism (1st series), No.92, October 1976, pp.30-34.

‘WHEREAS Dublin and Nationalist Ireland generally is seething with rebellion against industrial conditions and manifesting that rebellion by a crop of strikes, in Belfast and the quarter dominated by the loyalist elements, class feeling or industrial discontent is at present scarcely manifested at all.’

It was not always like that, but when James Connolly was writing, in 1913, it must have seemed like it. In a series of articles in Forward, Connolly, who had experience of organising workers in both Dublin and Belfast, tried to explain to his readers – and maybe to himself – why this was. Home Rule, he said, was a non-controversial question in the South, but not at all settled in the North, which ‘makes it possible for that question to so possess the minds of multitude that all other questions such as wages, hours and conditions of labour, must take a subordinate place and lose their power to attract attention, much less to compel action.’ It is a very partial explanation of a problem which, though the terms have changed, still remains.

Ethnic, national, or ‘community’ loyalties may at any time blur workers’ vision of their class interests. Loyalist ideology and the apparatus of Loyalist ascendancy do it more effectively than most. But while Protestant workers have put up little direct resistance to the redundancies and wage restrictions now hitting them with full force, it is likely to be around these issues that the Loyalist organisations become isolated and the class interest, the need for workers’ unity, filters through. For the moment, they have generally allowed the small-time reactionary Loyalist politicians such as Rev Robert Bradford and Jim Kilfedder, to lead whatever low-key protests have been mounted against closures and lay-offs. At the demonstration organised last April by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions against closure of the Defence Ministry missile development sites near Belfast, the limelight was taken by the principal platform speakers, Paisley and Craig. The very least that can be said of these gentlemen is that they are unsympathetic to the traditional aims and aspirations of the trade union movement.

Too many socialists and Republicans have seen nothing but these outer signs and dismissed the possibility that the impact of the economic crisis on Protestant workers would begin to separate them from Loyalist ideology and the Loyalist organisations. They have learned to regard the Protestant population of Northern Ireland as one undifferentiated reactionary mass, which has no part – except an antagonistic one – in the struggle for socialism. But those who have abandoned their belief that the Loyalists could, and would, aim for a military take-over and the re-establishment of a Loyalist state through civil war, have never stopped to think why the Loyalists were never able to achieve the unity of organisation and perspective to achieve that. At a time when the Loyalist movement is fragmenting, and that process is producing a more brutal sectarian violence from some quarters but also a deeper war-weariness in others, the part of Protestant workers in the working class revolution needs closer attention.

Two books published earlier this year, which make their own useful contributions to the impoverished socialist literature on the North, fail in this respect. Neither Michael Farrell (The Orange State, Pluto, £5) nor Geoffrey Bell (The Protestants of Ulster, Pluto, £2) can conceive of Loyalists playing any other role than the obstructionist, repressive role most of them have played for most of the time. Geoffrey Bell provides insightful vignettes of many different aspects of Protestant life, mingles sympathy with spite and ends on an unresolved note of resignation. Michael Farrell charts the failure of successive phases of parliamentary and military opposition to the Orange state, states the choice as being between a new, more repressive form of that state and socialism throughout Ireland. But, having given scant attention to the instances of Protestant working class struggle independently of, and against, their traditional leaders, he totally ignores them when looking for the forces for change.

The response of many unemployed Catholics to news of redundancies in Protestant-dominated work-places has been to say ‘serves them right’. Understandable as the reaction may be, it must be the socialist’s concern to oppose that attitude and the ‘community’ orientation of even the most radical kind of Republican politics which feeds it. The commitment to socialism and ‘the workers’ republic’ at the end of so many speeches and articles by Republicans and socialists can only remain an article of faith if it is not based on a recognition of the working class as a whole and on effective support for Protestant workers who, for instance, face redundancies and curbs on wage rises. Unhappily, that runs so much against the grain for some left-wing groups, and certainly for Republican organisations, that they could not bring themselves to offer solidarity even verbally, to the mainly Protestant workers who were on strike at Mackie’s four engineering works in Belfast for nine weeks earlier this year and late last year.

Michael Farrell’s final call is for unity to defeat Loyalism. He makes it sound very much like unity of the Catholic population (behind ‘revolutionary’ leadership) against the Loyalist organisations (and the population behind them). But the Orange state cannot be smashed, and Loyalism cannot be defeated, unless a substantial section of Protestant workers are, at the very least, sympathetic to that struggle. And the socialist option in Farrell’s alternatives can never be realised without their active participation.

Ironically, James Connolly had tackled the same problem 63 years ago. He criticised the socialist movement of his day for not having produced literature ‘suitable for the conversion to socialism of Orangemen’. He saw fully the difficulty of making such a conversion and anticipated correctly that Partition would add to it. But he also considered that the many stories of how Protestant workers were poorly treated by the Protestant exploiters should be made accessible. As he recognised, the ‘ex-Orange exponent of socialism’ needs a very particular material on which to base his ‘appeal to the Orange masses’.

It has become a reflex action of a section of the Left to quickly follow any reference to episodes of industrial militancy by Protestant workers, or of united workers’ action, with a reminder that it did not, and could not, last long. Loyalty to the Orange bosses and the fear of disrupting the Orange state which has safeguarded Protestant privileges was always bound to get in the way. And it did – following the big Belfast strikes of 1907 and 1919, the unemployed action of the early 1930s, the war-time strikes in the shipyards, the apprentices’ strikes in the 1950s, the rent strikes in several decades. All of these involved a majority of Protestant workers. All fizzled out without making a lasting impression, and leaving the apparatus of Unionist patronage and privilege (and the virtual exclusion of Catholics from some of the industries in question) completely intact.

The importance of these and other such episodes is that they show the possibility and the inevitability of class differentiation showing through the tangle of Loyalism. Each of them produced their quota of recruits for left-wing organisations which had involved themselves, directly or indirectly, in the struggles. It is also true, however, that in some cases they had been preceded by increased Catholic penetration into Protestant-dominated workplaces. War-time conditions, for instance, gave that minority of Catholic workers with a trade access to the shipyards. Mackie’s expansion in their West Belfast plants gave some Catholics the chance to work – and become shop stewards – there. And each of these episodes was followed by redoubled efforts to tighten the bonds of all-class Protestant solidarity.

Days ‘lost’
through strikes
per 1,000 workers




































The statement by James Connolly with which we opened hardly applies to current conditions, but it is noticeable that direct action to resist redundancies has come in the North in smaller, more peripheral industries with mainly, or exclusively, Catholic workers. The Newry area, in particular, has seen a number of strikes and sit-ins against factory closures, some of which have led to take-overs by newly formed co-operatives. The leading figures in a number of important struggles involving mainly Protestant workers have, in fact, been of Catholic, even Republican, background – for instance, the leader of the lorry drivers’ strike of early 1975 which continued in the North after it had stopped in England.

Strengthening the ties of Protestant solidarity has been as powerful an effect of the Orange apparatus as the oppression of Catholics and the suppression of Nationalist opposition. The political and social discrimination against Catholics, by reducing their ability to compete with Protestants for jobs which were never plentiful, has served to deepen the loyalty of Protestant workers to their own bosses. And the permanent ‘emergency’ state which has been ‘necessary’ for 55 years in order to quell revolt from the ‘disloyal’ Catholic population has also helped the Unionist bosses to stamp firmly on any disaffection rearing even a timid head among Loyalists.

Following that 1919 strike for the shortening of the working week, hundreds of workers were driven out of the shipyards – and they included far more militant trade unionists, who were Protestants, than Sinn Feiners, real or suspected. It was against the Sinn Fein threat, however, that the yard owners had whipped up feeling. One year before that, the Unionist leader, Sir Edward Carson – whose consistently reactionary parliamentary record is effectively detailed by Geoff Bell – thought it necessary to set up an Ulster Unionist Labour Association in order to counter-act the influence of socialist ideas on Protestant workers.

By putting arms into the hands of every third Loyalist adult male, the new state of 1921 cemented the loyalties. The elaborate rituals of Orangeism and the many channels of patronage constantly refuelled them. In the early days of the state, a position in the ‘B-Specials’, and therefore paid time off work, was the reward for the most enthusiastic exponents of good industrial relations. But even that body was not above suspicion of harbouring trade union sympathies in some quarters. An even more exclusive body had to be established to deal with direct strike threats.

The slowly modernised economy of Northern Ireland – an under-developed region of the UK economy – has never been able to provide much more than token material privileges for Protestant workers; the most important has been the favoured access to jobs. It has taken constant hammering at the ‘national’ theme, however, to keep the workers in the fold. Whenever the impact of the very frequent, and very deep economic crises threatened to subvert the loyalties of Protestant workers it has usually been possible to draw them back by pointing to the awful consequences of disloyalty: subjugation on a backward, Catholic-run united Ireland. There is nothing more likely to concentrate the mind on essential things than that prospect.

In the late 1930s, for instance, unemployment reached 25 per cent of the working population, nearly half as many again unemployed as there are at present. And during the 1938 general election campaign, the Loyalist press and politicians had to launch an extraordinary tirade against the ‘wreckers’ who were nothing more than Progressive Unionists or Independent Unionists who made opposition to unemployment a major part of their programme. The Unionists who have been returned unopposed – and there can hardly have been any other place in Western Europe where workers and small farmers were allowing factory-owners and landlords to get into parliament so easily to ‘represent’ them – devoted their full energies to smothering the campaign of the independents. They succeeded in doing so very effectively.

Neither the level of class struggle nor the stranglehold of Loyalist ideology has allowed the development, on any significant scale, or for any considerable length of time, of social democracy among Protestant workers. The Northern Ireland Labour Party has for 30 years insisted that it accepts and supports the existence of the Northern state, but has never been able to win more than four parliamentary seats, and even to do that has relied heavily on Catholic votes. However, NILP members, as well as Communists and Republicans, have been regularly elected to representative trade union positions by Protestant workers – an indication of political schizophrenia rather than a fundamental break from Loyalist sympathies.

Working class Loyalists have, particularly since the mid-1960s, attempted to establish their independence from bourgeois and petit-bourgeois leaders within the framework of Loyalist politics. But they have generally produced a more rabidly anti-Catholic version of Loyalist thinking. Naturally, Loyalism with a specifically working class appeal has to make reference to the loss of jobs, to bad housing conditions, and to the wealth and privileges of their fur coat brigade’ who have been the traditional leaders. But individual working class Loyalists who have gone too far in trying to define a radical or ‘socialist’ Loyalism have been snuffed out, either politically or physically.

On the other hand, Loyalist organisations trying to base themselves on the industrial proletariat have not survived long. The Loyalist Association of Workers, formed in 1971 by Billy Hull, an AUEW convenor in the shipyards, who had earlier tried to set up a ‘Workers’ Committee for the Defence of the Constitution’, lasted 18 months. The character of the Ulster Workers’ Council, which still survives in name over two years after the ‘UWC strike’, has changed completely. Its leading figures are no longer the shop stewards and convenors from industry who set it up. The ‘class-conscious’ Ulster Citizens’ Army came and went. A move by Ken Gibson of the Ulster Volunteer Force to set up a working class Loyalist party did not materialise, just as LAW never got further than ‘tottering on the brink of forming a working class party’. It has been impossible, in other words, to maintain a specifically working class Loyalist organisation.

The UWC, which organised the most successful working class action of any Loyalist organisation, was never able to translate its success back into the work-place. The frequently repeated threats to drive out of trade union positions all those who had opposed the May 1974 stoppage could never be carried through. The strike itself was in some ways a less voluntary use of industrial strength than the several strikes and workers’ marches of 1971 and 1972. The assistance of armed UDA pickets from outside was needed in order to enforce the stoppage in many major Protestant work-places. Many were physically stopped going to work; others simply did not risk passing the barricades.

While there was undoubtedly a well of resentment among many Protestant workers against the strike, few were willing to oppose the organisers directly. Nearly 300 trade union representatives within the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions met on the first weekend of the stoppage to declare their opposition to it. But less than one half of that number marched with Len Murray, leader of the TUC, when he attempted to lead a march-back to work on the following Monday. Meanwhile, the whole action was slipping out of the grasp of the workers who had launched it. The demonstrations and rallies were taken over by the politicians, as indeed, was the Co-Ordinating Committee which became the main organising body. Today, the UWC could never repeat that performance, even though it has threatened to do so on several occasions since.

The Ulster Defence Association has been by far the most successful of the Loyalist organisations to emerge from the fragmentation of the Unionist bloc. It has always had a community base with its main support in working class areas. But it has not tried to project a specifically proletarian image in the way that LAW and the UWC had done. The UDA has organised support in work-places, although this appears to be diminishing. The individuals within it who tried to give it a working class direction and who were tempted to see the interests of the class, Protestant and Catholic, as a whole, have been pushed aside. The most active UDA members, and particularly the leading figures, have generally not been workers; more usually they have a petit-bourgeois background – or a long record of unemployment and/or crime. The court cases of Protestants charged with murders which have been inspired, or ordered, by the UDA, show at least three quarters of them to be unemployed. The anti-Catholic violence organised by the UDA to drive Catholics out of ‘Protestant jobs’ has usually been organised from outside the plants.

To many people – including Northern Protestants – Ian Paisley and ‘Paisleyism’ appear to be the representative voice of grass-roots Loyalism. Paisley has made only passing efforts to organise his influence among industrial workers. His style and manner appeal to Loyalist workers, even if they understand little, and care less, about his obscure theological convictions. It is noticeable, however, that Geoff Bell hesitates to use the term ‘working class’ in reference to Paisley’s influence and support. He describes him as ‘the lower class Ulster Protestant’ and the best introduction to what the consciousness of large sections of the Protestant poor is all about’. But here, as elsewhere, Geoff Bell is too brief in considering other aspects of Protestant working class consciousness.

Loyalism at the work-place can take violent and virulent forms – including the use of skills and tools to make arms – but, increasingly, it is not organised by any particular faction. It can coexist with a Communist Party member or independent left-winger as shop steward. The fact that most such stewards will not challenge the outward signs of Loyalism directly seems less important in this context than the fact that their Loyalist colleagues will not, or cannot, remove them from their union posts, much less present an alternative line on trade union matters. When a socialist from Britain was invited to Northern Ireland plants of STC as the representative of the combine committee in order to discuss STC’s plans to close the British and Irish operations, the UDA attempted to organise a boycott of the meeting. They had some effect on the skilled workers, but on the whole were so unsuccessful that they had to attend the meeting themselves. Since then, Paisley and one of his cohorts who works at STC, have been on a delegation to the government about the closure. While this activity certainly adds to the confusion of the workers involved, they are equally certainly not under those Loyalists’ thumbs.

Loyalism will be defeated in large part through its isolation by Protestant workers themselves. The place where that isolation can, and will, begin is in the industrial work-places. The main focus of that process must be, in the first instance, the issues of jobs and living standards. The reaction against sectarian killings, such as it is, will make it easier for some clear lines about these issues to emerge, but only when a significant section of Protestants are fighting working class struggles with some success will they have the confidence to oppose effectively the Loyalist organisations’ physical activities.

The atmosphere in Loyalist-dominated work-places is still hostile to socialist ideas, but the means of penetrating the barriers are more visible. There is, of course, a Loyalist-flavoured explanation for the current crisis, and particularly for the sharp increase in redundancies affecting Protestant workers in the more advanced and more highly capitalised industries such as chemicals (ICI), synthetic fibres (Courtaulds), telecommunications (STC), and the aerospace industry. These are blamed on ‘British economic withdrawal’, on the Labour government’s supposed concessions to the IRA. The local-chauvinist blinkers are still too firmly on for any significant number of workers to recognise in the redundancies occurring in the same sectors throughout Britain the evidence that their job losses are part of a much wider development. The onus is on socialists in the working class movement in Britain to help them recognise it.

Providing an alternative explanation, and generalising the issues to the level of the working classes in Britain and Ireland, is made all the more difficult when the trade union leadership and its official left wing, on the one hand, and the Provisional Republicans, on the other, echo the Loyalist line. The Provisional are quite happy to see the closures and lay-offs as signs of withdrawal. The trade union officials (including Communist Party supporters among them) put the answers in terms of increased government action to help ‘the province’. Official Sinn Fein, which maintains a running commentary on the North’s economic crisis, has simply added to the detail about the openings for state enterprise.

The Communist Party acquired its industrial base in Belfast at a time when it was recruiting for the British Army, the party having split during World War II along the same lines as the Northern and Southern sections of the bourgeoisie. Since then, it has always kept a ‘low profile’ towards Loyalism, and even tried to get members to negotiate with LAW when that organisation was gathering support. Its deep-seated reformism and tactical conservatism prevents it from recognising or taking the opportunities which it has – more than any other organisation on the Left – of presenting an alternative to Protestant workers. The Official Republicans, who never let anybody forget that they have had Protestants in their ranks, hardly seem to regard mainstream Loyalism as a threat. For a long time they saw working class unity in terms of an addition of Republicanism with Loyalism. They published, without critical commentary, the statements of more radical, less obviously sectarian groups and individuals who have surfaced from time to time in the Loyalist organisations. The principal demand for a couple of years was, after the call for a Bill of Rights, a call for a conference of all para-military bodies – including the UDA and UVF, then engaged in regular killings of Catholics. But they and the Communist Party have now put nearly all their non-sectarian eggs into the basket of the ‘Better Life For All’ campaign.

The campaign arose out of a genuine rank and file response to sectarian killings. It has put life into the trade union movement in areas where it had almost died on its feet. It has allowed for some discussion of the means of dealing with unemployment, intimidation, poor housing, etc. But, with a very vague set of principles, and with insufficient rank and file confidence to prevent manipulation by the union leaders, it has not yet provided the opportunities it might have done for organising opposition to the distinctly antidemocratic, anti-working class Loyalist bodies which organise in the trade union and industrial sphere. The campaign could have given Protestant workers opposed to Loyalist sectarianism an outlet, but it has been allowed to fizzle out.

Few Protestant workers have played an active part in the campaign but those have been enough to rattle some of the Loyalist organisations. Even with the pious demands and a hesitant commitment to action, the campaign has been seen as a threat. Loyalist activists were much more concerned to stop a contingent from the ‘Better Life For All’ campaign marching up the Shankill Road than to stop the peace women. Aping the Unionist leaders of old, they attempt to frighten off fellow-Protestants by smearing the campaign, and the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU which launched it, as ‘Republican’ and ‘Communist’. They have intimidated campaign supporters collecting signatures for the campaign’s petition in Loyalist areas.

The ‘Better Life’ campaign and the current economic situation only offer openings if socialists in Britain and Ireland are prepared to look for them. There are, unfortunately, those in the anti-imperialist movement who decry active concern about the demands this makes on socialists’ methods and perspectives as ‘pandering’. They have blinded themselves to the interests of the class as a whole. Meanwhile, the reformists of the Official Republican movement and of the Communist Party have, with their civil rights emphasis, accommodated to the Six County state, the essential framework of Loyalist sectarianism. Popular frontist politics cannot build the bridge – as the experience of the 1930s shows too well.

In the first years of that decade, class struggle reached its highest levels in the history of the Orange state. The ‘outdoor relief protests brought together unemployed and employed, Catholic and Protestant, behind a militant working class leadership. Protestant working class support was not diverted by the intervention of the state forces; the Shankill fought the RUC. When the movement subsided, it left behind a solid core of class-conscious workers in the Protestant areas. Under the banner, ‘Break the Connection with Capitalism’, a Shankill contingent took part in the 1934 commemoration of Wolfe Tone’s death at Bodenstown. The IRA leader of the time, Sean McBride, ordered that the banners be taken down; as his orders were carried out, the Communist Party stood by. At the conference of the Republican Congress some months later, the CPI opposed the proposal that it should declare itself openly for socialism, supporting, instead, the view of the Congress as an anti-imperialist front. The possibility of integrating those Protestant workers into an all-Ireland organisation was thrown away. In 1935, the remaining hopes that the link would be maintained were destroyed in the worst wave of sectarian violence since the immediate aftermath of the foundation of the state.

The socialist presence in the Protestant working class was nothing like strong enough to resist that sectarian tide, but it is interesting that one of the small socialist organisations with Protestant support which did survive was, in 1936, the first left-wing organisation to publicise the events in Spain and to organise solidarity. In that gesture, the short-lived Northern Ireland Socialist Party showed that openly working class, internationalist ideas had more chance of attracting Protestant workers’ support than the mish-mash of compromises with reformism and Republicanism which has been the dominant tendency on the Irish Left since that time.

The immediate tasks are at a lower level, however. In seeking any means of encouraging an independent working class current among Protestants, socialists cannot lay down criteria for co-operation which would immediately exclude the vast majority. Opposition to the official trade union line on unemployment and redundancies, on wage restrictions and on union democracy does not hinge on the attitude to the state. In order to have a real impact, an anti-unemployment march does not have to call for the withdrawal of British troops – but it does need to propose ways of struggling which absolutely cut out the Loyalist politicians, around demands for work-sharing, shorter hours and nationalisation under workers’ control and through direct action such as occupations and sit-ins. Socialists in the British working class movement may have even greater opportunity to influence Protestant workers in that direction, both by example and direct contact, than Irish socialists.

Within the anti-imperialist movement socialists have to insist on the right of defence against Loyalist sectarian attack, but oppose those physical force methods which tend to heighten sectarian tension, as the Provisionals’ bombing campaign has done. The independence of socialist, working class politics in that context is seen in the consistent advocacy of mass, democratic methods of struggle, in the linking of the anti-repression and anti-imperialist demands with the building of a workers’ movement against capitalism, North and South. A left wing which has seen the connection between anti-imperialist and socialist perspectives in terms of a fusion of the Republican and working class traditions condemns itself to one side of the sectarian divide only. If the interests of the working class are placed first, then it can be seen that the national struggle does not provide an adequate springboard for the socialist revolution. The anti-imperialist demands have to be integrated into a working class programme. And that task has yet to be accomplished both theoretically and practically.

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