ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Autumn 1994


Kieran Allen

What is changing in Ireland?


From International Socialism 2:64, Autumn 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


James Connolly, Ireland’s leading Marxist of the early 20th century, bequeathed an ominous prediction to his followers: a partitioned Ireland would lead to a ‘carnival of reaction’. The division of Ireland between a Protestant dominated North and a Catholic dominated South would ‘help the Home Rule and Orange capitalists to keep their rallying cries before the public as the political watchwords of the day’ and so drown out any form of class politics. [1]

Connolly’s prediction has been more than confirmed for most of this century. In Northern Ireland the state was built around the exclusion of Catholics. Local authorities and Orange employers discriminated against Catholics. Basil Brooke, a future prime minister, set the tone when he told fellow landowners that:

he had not a Roman Catholic about his own place ... [they] were endeavouring to get in everywhere and were out in force and might to destroy Ulster ... he appealed to Unionists everywhere to employ good Protestant lads and lassies. [2]

In order to deal with the disgruntled minority of Catholics internment was introduced regularly. An auxiliary police force of B Specials was recruited from local Orange halls. [3] Catholics were forbidden to hold any sort of march or protest through the centres of the major towns of Derry and Belfast.

By and large, the Protestant working class supported this regime. The votes of Protestant workers ensured that a one party Unionist regime was established. In the 50 years that Unionist rule lasted, only one opposition bill was ever passed – the Wild Bird Conservation Act. In the early part of the century 60 percent of Protestant men were members of the Orange Order and while there was a slow decline, the Order still held the allegiance of many Protestant workers. [4] The main challenger to Unionism inside the Protestant working class, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, pandered to sectarianism and bigotry. Speeches in favour of the Orange Order were regularly made from its platforms and leading members displayed their orange sash. [5] The NILP failed to condemn the use of internment or massacres such as Bloody Sunday when 13 people were shot dead in Derry by the parachute regiment. It even refused to back measures which called for ‘one man, one vote’ when thousands of both Catholics and Protestants were marching for this demand in 1968. [6] The unions were also contaminated by this atmosphere of sectarianism. One union, the Boilermakers Union, which organised skilled Protestant workers was actually found guilty of practising discrimination itself in membership applications. [7] Protestant workers accepted the argument that the slightest fissure in the Unionist community would open the way to the Southern government to impose a united Ireland and Rome Rule on loyal Ulster.

The South, of course, was a mirror image of the Northern regime. Fianna Fail and the Unionist party fed off and reinforced each other. Fianna Fail claimed to pursue two goals – the reunification of Ireland and the restoration of the Gaelic language. Neither was taken particularly seriously but both provided arguments around which to construct a ‘national movement’. [8] From 1932 to 1973 Fianna Fail was only out of office for eight years. It presided over one of the most repressive Catholic regimes in the world. Divorce and even information on contraception were banned. Control of the hospitals and schools was vested in the hands of the church. Many of the writings of the leading Irish writers from Joyce to O’Casey were banned. Laws were passed giving the state the right to exclude married women from the workforce. And again Southern workers, by and large, supported this setup.

Fianna Fail prided itself on being the party of ‘workers and small farmers’. The close links between Fianna Fail and some of the union leaders was symbolised when Charles J. Haughey became prime minister in 1981. He was heralded into the Fianna Fail conference by the Irish Transport and General Workers Union band playing A Nation Once Again! Just as in the North, the Labour Party was marginalised and forced to conform to the ethos set by Fianna Fail. The Labour Party leader in the 1960s, when the left rhetoric was at its height, was Brendan Corish who proclaimed that ‘he was a Catholic first and a socialist afterwards’. [9] The Irish Labour Party has traditionally received one of the lowest votes of any Labour Party in Europe. Throughout the 1980s, for example, the average left vote in the Republic of Ireland stood at 12.8 percent compared to a Western European average of 37 percent. [10]

These conditions provided the stoniest grounds for building any serious left wing party. Yet the history of the Irish left is punctuated by flashes of real hope, times when a large audience seemed to emerge – only to be followed by periods of deep despair and demoralisation. Some of the wounds were self inflicted. Republicanism exercised an almost magnetic pull on the left. Some sections of the left saw it as the natural vehicle for advance in Irish conditions. Others recoiled in horror from any involvement with ‘Catholic nationalism’.

Amongst the older generation of Irish left wingers the failures of the past linger like nightmares. But the Irish left also had a ready made alibi for those failures. Ireland, it was claimed, was a backward country. There was only a tiny working class, hopelessly divided by its communal identities. The ‘objective conditions’ made the prospect for constructing a serious socialist presence difficult, if not impossible, in Ireland. This article will argue that the alibis have now been proved false. The socialist movement in Ireland is at a watershed. Developments in both the North and South of the country open up new opportunities – and dangers. Whether or not there are major advances made in Ireland now depends on whether revolutionaries in Ireland can actually make the step to transform themselves into a small but significant revolutionary party that becomes a factor in the shaping of Irish history. That means breaking with the idea that socialists are bound to play a marginal role in Irish society. We shall start by looking at how the two bastions of conservatism in the South, Fianna Fail and the Catholic church, won their base – and at the serious challenges they are now facing.

Fianna Fail

The Fianna Fail party used to be an awesome phenomenon. Not only did it dominate the government of the Republic of Ireland for decades, almost as a one party state, its tentacles were everywhere. It had a relatively large and active membership for a bourgeois party. Until the 1980s the party’s membership was numbered between 70,000 and 80,000 in a country whose total population was less than 3.5 million adults and children. Everywhere one looked the influence of the party was present. The Gaelic Athletic Organisation (the major sports organisation) was often organised at local level by Fianna Fail activists. The political nominees of the primary teachers’ union were Fianna Fail members. If you wanted a job or a local authority house, you often had to approach the local Fianna Fail councillor. It drew its votes from right across the class spectrum. It never got less than 40 percent of the votes of the skilled and unskilled manual working class. Whilst its local leadership has traditionally been drawn from the petty bourgeoisie, there have also been a fair proportion of workers who were members. As late as 1986 it could organise a major conference for its trade union members and supporters. Irish bourgeois commentators have been mystified by how the party won this base. The only book which has appeared on Fianna Fail was written by an Irish Times journalist, Dick Walsh. He claimed that at the heart of the party was ‘a blazing mystique [which had] no social content’. [11] Academic writers have fared no better in their explanation. J.P. O’Carroll, who has written extensively on the party’s founder, de Valera, has argued that the strength of his politics ‘lay in the fact that it drew on much that was beyond the rational’. [12] Another has analysed Fianna Fail’s base in terms of it being the political expression of ‘Gaelic Romanticism’. [13]

Fianna Fail has in fact been a product of the underdevelopment and backwardness of Irish society. When he formed the party in the 1920s, de Valera described the Irish economy, accurately it has to be said, as an ‘outgarden for the British’. [14] Some 97 percent of its exports went to Britain and these were overwhelmingly agricultural. A full 18 percent of the value of these exports was derived from live animals and another 40 percent was composed of food and drink. The proportion of the labour force employed in manufacturing was tiny. The party grew out of that section of the IRA which had been defeated in the civil war in 1922–3. It came to represent sections of the intelligentsia employed as teachers and civil servants in the urban areas as well as the smaller capitalists who sought to remove the shackles of economic domination.

Officially, the party decried partition and demanded the unification of Ireland. But the opposition remained entirely at a rhetorical level. Those who were later to take the rhetoric of the Southern establishment seriously and join the IRA would find themselves interned, tortured and even hanged by Fianna Fail.

For Fianna Fail, partition represented a collective symbol of a national wrong that was to be used to smother class divisions and impose a uniformity on Southern society. The real focus of Fianna Fail politics was the establishment of full national sovereignty and economic development for the South. Its principal target in its early days was the agro-export model which benefited the larger farmers and the commercial capital. These groupings opposed any form of protectionism and state intervention.

In order to achieve their goals, Fianna Fail set out to win a base among workers. In a letter smuggled out of prison at the end of the civil war, de Valera pointed to the possibility of class politics emerging and advised his followers to ‘lean more on the economic side’ and insist on raising a ‘national programme for the common good not a class programme’. [15] Within these strictures Fianna Fail engaged in a quite radical rhetoric. Its paper, The Nation, and later, the Irish Press denounced the ‘pro-British financiers who control our economic system and visit us with all our sorrows wanton and without cause’. [16] They attacked the Free State police and demanded the abolition of the standing army. [17] Some of their MPs expressed admiration for Stalin’s Five Year Plan in Russia. One prominent deputy, Gerry Boland, claimed that ‘in Russia, they treat labour on a human basis not as a commodity to be bartered with’. [18] In its attacks on imperialism and profession of sympathy with workers, Fianna Fail more than matched the left rhetoric that Sinn Fein used in the 1980s.

The nearest parallel to Fianna Fail in the 1920s and 1930s was in the populist movements in Latin America. Like Varga in Brazil, Cardenas in Mexico and Peron in Argentina, de Valera sought to create an ‘industrial bloc’ which united workers and small capital in a fight against the agro-export model which held their countries in a state of backwardness. In Ireland, however, there were no latifundia (large estates). Prior to their departure from the South, the British ruling class had encouraged a series of measures which enabled the old landlord class to hand over their land in return for generous compensation. The conflicts between the large farmers who relied on open access to the British market and Fianna Fail’s aspirations were important, but not as intense as similar conflicts in Latin America. Fianna Fail therefore did not need the same degree of mobilisation of workers which Peron needed to achieve power in Argentina. Nevertheless de Valera sought to build a major voting base among workers and a tight network of supporters.

Irish workers responded to Fianna Fail’s populism for a variety of reasons. As Trotsky pointed out, the Irish working class was ‘formed in an atmosphere saturated with heroic memories of national rebellion and coming into conflict with the egotistically narrow and imperially arrogant trade unionism in Britain, has wavered between nationalism and syndicalism’. [19] The high points of workers’ struggle had often coincided with upsurges of struggle against the British Empire. Indeed, the greatest expansion of the Irish trade unions occurred during the War of Independence when workers went on several local general strikes and formed soviets both to help drive out the British army and improve their own conditions. Not surprisingly then, a party which argued for continuing opposition to British colonialism was bound to get support among Irish workers.

Moreover, at the time of Fianna Fail’s formation the syndicalist instinct of Irish workers was in decline. After 1923 the Irish trade union movement suffered tremendous defeats. Trade union membership fell from 126,522 in 1923 to 70,573 in 1930. [20] The best militants who supported the syndicalist traditions of Jim Larkin found themselves in disarray. The defeats coincided with a recomposition of Irish labour. The traditionally militant groupings in the transport and docks declined and the labour movement came to be dominated by sections of workers who had no previous tradition of militant struggle. By the time of the Wall Street Crash, the agro-export model was discredited. The weakness of the workers’ movement meant that Fianna Fail’s message that there had to be national development before there could be any social advance took serious roots.

From 1932, when they first took power, up to recent times Fianna Fail won and held a mass base among Irish workers through its nationalist message. It refused to pay land annuities – repayment on loans to buy land from the former landlord class – to Britain even though the Irish Labour Party had previously recommended that they be paid as a legal debt. [21] It faced down the fascist Blueshirts who had the backing of the big farmers in the 1930s. It refused to enter the Second World War on the side of Britain despite the virulent opposition of Churchill. Moreover, for a period, its strategy of protectionism seemed to work. Thousands of new jobs were created and an extensive house building programme was established.

Fianna Fail was able to win a base more easily among workers because of the activities of the trade union leaders and, to a lesser extent, the left. The leaders of the ITGWU forged a close alliance with Fianna Fail after the 1930s. They supported its efforts to drive women out of the workforce. They ran an hysterical campaign against ‘British based’ unions with the open support of Fianna Fail. In 1943 they split the Labour Party and later the Trade Union Congress for ten years on the basis of establishing a more open alliance with Fianna Fail. [22] The tiny left was also hopelessly confused by Fianna Fail’s nationalism. Jim Larkin, for example, supported de Valera in the early 1930s and the Communist Party regularly called for second preference votes for Fianna Fail as a ‘progressive’ bourgeois party.

In the 1950s Fianna Fail began to run into considerable difficulties. Its strategy of protectionism ran up against the limitations of the small Irish domestic market. Unemployment and poverty grew while the rest of Europe was experiencing the post-war boom. Emigration became a mass phenomenon. Such was the scale of the exodus that in 1955 a book appeared called The Vanishing Irish, which debated the possibility of the death of the Irish ‘race’. Fianna Fail and Irish capitalism saved themselves by a complete about turn in strategy after 1958. They dropped the protectionist barriers, abandoned the stipulation that Irish capital had to have 51 percent control in all companies and invited in mobile multinational investment. As these firms did not compete with Irish capital for the domestic market but rather used Ireland as a ‘platform economy’ for exporting to Europe, native Irish capital was given new opportunities for expansion.

The small Irish left denounced the turn as a betrayal of ‘national independence’. One Labour Party TD [i.e. a member of the Irish parliament], for example, claimed that, ‘The Soldiers of Destiny [the literal translation of Fianna Fail] had become the Queen’s men.’ [23] In reality Fianna Fail had not abandoned its enthusiasm for building up Irish national capital – it simply found a more realistic strategy to pursue the same goals. Irish capital began to expand dramatically after 1958, producing a few multinational firms and a huge growth of local small capital. And in conditions of an expanding world economy they were able to pull themselves away from the economic domination by Britain. After 1958 Irish trade diversified away from Britain. Its composition changed from agricultural exports to items such as electronics and chemicals. US, Japanese and German firms came to employ more workers than British firms. The Irish Central Bank eventually broke its link with sterling. After the 1958 turn it became absurd to describe the Republic of Ireland as a neo-colony of Britain.

The turn also enabled Fianna Fail to maintain its working class base. The high growth rates that the Southern economy experienced right up to the 1970s allowed the party to establish a rudimentary welfare state. Free second level education was introduced. The public health system was expanded. The tax burden of this welfare state fell, of course, on workers rather than on capital. Taxes on income grew from 18 percent of central government receipts in 1958 to 21 percent in 1973 while tax on capital actually fell from 2 percent to 1 percent in the same period. [24] Nevertheless in conditions of rising living standards – an increase estimated at 50 percent in the 1960s – the tax burden was a minor irritant. Growing conflicts emerged between Fianna Fail and an expanding working class but these were never focused by a political leadership that would have allowed full scale hostility to Fianna Fail to develop.

There was therefore nothing mystical or irrational about the way in which Fianna Fail won its base. At the core of Fianna Fail’s relationship with the working class has been its promise that national development could bring gains for workers. At periodic intervals the party has indulged in a militant nationalist line on the North. But given Fianna Fail’s record, anti-partitionism was never sufficient to consolidate its support. Rather its political support rested on displaying a link between periodic improvements in working class living standards and its championship of Irish capital and Irish economic development. In the 1930s and 1940s protectionism and the revival of Irish capital coincided with small and very modest improvements for an impoverished Irish working class. In the 1960s and 1970s the alliance between Irish capital and the multinationals seemed to bring even more dramatic gains. It was under these conditions that Fianna Fail could develop its ideology of ‘social partnership’ where union and employers worked together for the good of the country. Now, however, this period is over.

The Catholic church

Catholicism has provided the second major pillar of the conservatism of the South. Over 90 percent of the population claimed to be Catholic up to the late 1970s. [25] At its high point in the 1940s and 1950s there were over 20,000 members of religious orders. [26] Few aspects of Irish life have not been touched by the power of the Catholic church. One writer in the magazine The Bell summarised the atmosphere in Ireland that survived right up to the 1960s as follows:

In 1931 we got a new Parish Priest. He condemned dancing in every form, even the kitchen dances were sinful and against the wishes of our church. Boys and girls should not be on the roads after dark. The Curate was sent out to patrol the roads and anybody found or seen on the roads had to give their names. The people who allowed boys and girls into their homes to dance were committing a grave mortal sin ... Dancing was the devil’s work. So was company keeping. [27]

The labour movement was by no means immune to the influence of the Catholic church. In 1951 one of the two Irish trade union congresses sent a telegram to the Pope claiming that their affiliated unions were ‘humbly prostrate at the feet of his Holiness’. [28] Trade union officials often received their first training in Catholic adult education centres which preached the virtues of anti-communism. Conferences of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union were regularly addressed by the right wing Bishop of Galway who denounced moves to any form of a welfare state as bringing about a ‘slave plantation mentality’. [29] The other guest at these congresses was often the CIA attaché at the US embassy.

The Catholic church in Ireland owed its tremendous power to a combination of factors. It was seen by many as a badge of identification that was opposed to colonial rule in Ireland. A number of legal measures in the distant past which discriminated against Catholicism, such as the penal laws, gave it the image of an oppressed church. The image was, of course, not entirely consistent with the truth. Every revolutionary movement that opposed British colonialism had to face the wrath of the church. The Bishop of Kerry, for example, said of the Fenians (the nationalist movement in the 19th century) that ‘hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish such miscreants’. [30] Nevertheless it was not the church of the colonial oppressor and this was later to convey certain unforeseen advantages. The Catholic church in Ireland, for example, never became a powerful landowner to the extent that it did in Spain and thus avoided conflict with the peasantry. While condemning the militants among the anti-colonial fighters, it was able to maintain links with the moderate forces in the nationalist movement. Thus, one of the early leaders of Sinn Fein was a priest and when Terence McSweeny, the Lord Mayor of Cork, died on a hunger strike in protest at British rule, his funeral mass was celebrated by a number of bishops and priests.

The other factor was the rural roots of the church. Prior to the great famine of 1847, the Catholic church in Ireland had a relatively loose institutional structure. In 1840 the ratio of priests to people was only one to 3,023 and there were few public places of worship. [31] It is estimated that in 1842 only 40 percent of the population could have attended mass on any given Sunday. [32] But the transformation of the Irish land structure after the great famine changed all that. A form of mini-clearances occurred in Irish agriculture. Tens of thousands of agricultural labourers were driven off the land. So too were ‘cottiers’ who owned between five and ten acres. In their place emerged a class of more secure farm owners.

The clergy were drawn from the wealthier section of this new property owning peasantry. The slow accumulation of wealth on the land coincided with the huge growth of the Catholic middle class in the cities from the end of the 19th century onwards. The new wealthier farming class sent their sons to the cities as lawyers, publicans, doctors – and priests. The number of priests rose by 150 percent between 1861 and 1911 despite an overall decline of the population. [33] By 1911 there was one priest for every 210 Catholics. [34]

The particularly repressive sexual morality that is so distinctive of Irish Catholicism fitted in well with the needs of the new farm owning class. For them marriage and sexuality were intimately connected with the ownership of land. The farming class dreaded anything that might lead to the breakup of their moderately sized farms. ‘Illegitimate’ births were regarded as a direct threat to the consolidation of land holdings. Marriage was postponed until land became available to the eldest sons. Other sons and daughters were condemned to a life of celibacy or emigration. In the 1920s, for example, over 60 percent of what the Irish Central Statistic Office classified as ‘relatives assisting’ never got married. [35] To encourage this sexual repression, the Virgin Mary was set up as the role model for Irish women. This morality may have been propagated by priests who came from the ‘better farming stock’, but it got a hearing from the majority of the population who lived in small tightly knit rural communities where life was miserable and barren.

The Catholic church was also rewarded for playing the role of the ideological policeman in Irish society by a successive accumulation of institutional power. The process had begun in the dying day of the British Empire in Ireland when the ruling class increased their support for the Catholic bishops in the hope that this might ward off the threat of revolutionary nationalism. The main training grounds for priests in Maynooth and the system of denominational education were both established under British rule. The practice was soon taken up by the first Free State government. In return for getting the church’s backing in the civil war, they gave the church control over the censorship board. But ironically it was under Fianna Fail that the trade off between more power for a church that opposed any dissent reached a new height. According to de Valera’s constitution of 1937 the state recognised the ‘special position of the Catholic church’ and dedicated its own constitution to the ‘Holy Trinity’. Nor was this a matter of mere symbols. The Catholic church took full control of the schools and the humanity faculties of most of the universities. Hospitals were also controlled by the church and an ‘Ethics Committee’ imposed Catholic morality on medical matters. Abortion, divorce, homosexuality, were banned and contraception was restricted – that is until the 1990s.

The winds of change

The basis for the stability of these two great pillars of Irish conservatism is now under threat in a way that it has never been in the past. The key to understanding why this is the case lies in the nature of the changes that have occurred in Ireland since industrialisation began in earnest. The changes that have happened have simply confounded many sections of the left.

The republican left argued that the changes that had occurred were, in some measure, a fake. Ireland remained a neocolony of Britain. There was no significant indigenous capitalist class in Ireland but rather a parasitic layer that served as puppets for Britain. The efforts of workers and all oppressed groupings had therefore to be directed to ending colonialism. Until partition was removed there could be no real gains in Irish society. This perspective often led to fairly obscure arguments. The women’s movement in Ireland, for example, had to align itself firmly with republicanism if it was to achieve anything – despite the fact that the same organisation opposed abortion and, in the 1980s, abstained on the question of rights to divorce.

These views were given some credibility by sections of the academic left which had a small following in Irish universities. Basing themselves on a number of Latin American writers such as Carduso and Furtado, the academic left argued that the industrialisation of Ireland was of a fundamentally different character to that experienced in metropolitan countries. It did not have a ‘balanced’ and integrated character where the different sectors of industry articulated with each other within the framework of a national economy. This had consequences in terms of political developments in Ireland. One writer, Ellen Hazelhorn, argued that dependent development and the practice of political clientelism were linked. With the weak and dependent form of industrialisation traditional politicians got control of the state apparatus and had even more patronage to dispense. Classical Marxism had ignored the manner in which ‘clientelism is a mechanism for manipulating political disorganisation among the dominated classes in society’. [36] The prediction seemed to be that Fianna Fail might actually grow stronger because of the changes underway in Irish society.

Others argued that dependent industrialisation was associated with a weak working class. Concerned to attack the supposed ‘economism’ in classical Marxism they argued that ‘the current form of industrialisation has involved new forms of domination of the working class’. [37] Industry was deliberately located in areas where trade union traditions were weak. The multinationals were totally hostile to any shop floor organisation. Reformism in Ireland had no locus as the national state was in no position to control the activities of these firms. The result was that ‘the form of industrial work in the foreign sector militated against effective class organisation’. [38]

The overall conclusion of these writers was one of overwhelming pessimism. Irish workers were seen simply as victims of the new foreign capital, condemned to wait either for the ending of partition or help from the enlightened European Union. The reality has been far different and far more contradictory.

One effect of industrialisation has been that the working class has expanded massively over the last few decades. In 1951, 38 percent of the Irish labour force worked on farms. Today the figure has declined to 15 percent. There are more unemployed people in Ireland today than there are farmers. Moreover, a very high proportion of the population identify themselves as workers. Some 42 percent of the Irish population regard themselves as working class – a figure that is just below the British figure. [39] The growth of the working class has been accompanied by a major increase in trade union density. Between 1945 and 1984 the number of trade unionists in Ireland more than trebled, giving Southern Ireland one of the highest trade union densities in Western Europe. [40] Worker militancy has also risen. Between 1979 and 1981, for example, there was an explosion of class consciousness as Ireland experienced its first general strike since the war of independence over the tax burden carried by workers. As in other countries, the tempo of workers’ struggle has never simply been an onwards and upwards mobilisation. The 1980s brought defeats and a downturn. But industrialisation laid the basis for class conflict on an increased scale between a larger working class and a stronger local bourgeoisie.

Industrialisation has also brought changes in the lives of working women. These changes run directly counter to the ethos of the Catholic church. Despite early attempts to exclude women from the workforce, women are joining the labour force in greater numbers. Between 1971 and 1991 the number of economically active women increased by 50 percent while the number of men increased by 10 percent. [41] Today a third of the Irish labour force are women, whereas in 1961 only 5 percent of marred women were in paid employment.

All of this has brought massive changes in the way in which Irish men and women are living their lives. Until the 1950s Irish family life was often characterised by late marriages and then a very high birth rate. Today all of this has changed. Irish couples are using contraception and planning the number and spacing of children. The average family size has fallen to two compared to four 20 years ago. More and more women are discarding marriage and having children outside of marriage. Some 18 percent of births are outside wedlock. Despite the bans on abortion, Irish women in the age group 18 to 23 are having the same number of abortions as women in other countries. The difference is that they have to travel to Britain.

If the republican left and the dependency theorists ignored the scale and potential of the changes that were occurring in Irish society, others drew the equally wrong conclusion that industrialisation would lead automatically to the liberalisation of Irish society. Here it was assumed that the shift away from an agricultural to a urban society would lead to a gradual whittling away of church influence. With the help of European Union (EU) social legislation it was assumed that Irish society would gradually move to resemble the other European countries.

In fact the shifts have been far more contradictory and explosive. For most of the 1980s the church and Fianna Fail were able to mount a successful rearguard action against the new pressures that were building up in Irish society. Faced with a rising working class militancy Fianna Fail attempted to use a more nationalist rhetoric to restore its base in the working class. But the 1980–81 H Block struggle and growth of republican ideas in the South for a brief period made this a dangerous strategy. Instead Fianna Fail switched to an open alliance with the SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) bigots and the bishops. SPUC was given a free rein to push through a referendum in Ireland which it hoped might provide an example for ‘pro-life’ forces in other parts of the world. In 1983 it inserted a clause in the Irish constitution which established that a foetus of a few days old had the equivalent right to life as a pregnant woman. In 1987, after Fianna Fail were thrown out of power, it worked again with the bigots to overthrow a proposal that divorce be permitted in Ireland. The participation of Labour in government at the time created ample scope for right wing populism. The bigots raised slogans such as ‘jobs, not divorce’ to tap into working class bitterness.

The success of the backlash of the 1980s arose from the fact that the development that occurred in Ireland was uneven and contradictory. Huge numbers left the land in the 1960s and 1970s as staunch Catholics only to find themselves in sprawling corporation housing estates where there were large pools of unemployment. Their children went to schools that were run by the church. When they went to hospital they continued to find the nuns and priests in charge. If they didn’t like the situation they often got out. In the 1980s a quarter of a million people took the emigrant ship from Ireland. Emigration provided the safety valve to rid Irish society of the discontented and angry.

As a result the first signs of liberalism in Irish society often seemed to be confined to a ‘Dublin 4’ liberal set. When these same liberals could not fulfil their promises to end poverty and unemployment they provided a ready made target for the bigots.

Yet despite their victories in the 1980s, neither Fianna Fail nor the church could turn the clock back. There was no return to a society built around the ‘comely maidens’ and the ‘rural homesteads.’ The slow, accumulating changes that accompanied industrialisation continued to progress despite their political victories. Marxists have argued that small quantitative changes can eventually add up to a major qualitative leap forward. History does not progress through the growth of moderation and tolerance, but to huge social explosions.

This is precisely what has happened in Ireland over the last two years. The explosions have emerged in the most surprising ways. In February 1992 the new leader of Fianna Fail, Albert Reynolds, appointed one Harry Whelehan to the office of attorney general. Whelehan had been a member of the Catholic Marriage Advisory Bureau and was known to be strongly opposed to abortion. A few days after he took up office a report arrived on his desk from the police stating that they had been approached by the parents of a 14 year old girl who had been raped. They were about to accompany their daughter on a trip to Britain to have an abortion and were enquiring if a DNA test on the aborted foetus might provide useful evidence to convict the rapist. Whelehan’s response was to impose an injunction to stop the 14 year old girl travelling from Ireland. In a piece of medieval barbarism known as the X case the child was to be confined to Ireland until she delivered her baby. Whelehan’s decision was upheld by the High Court which had been staffed with political hacks.

The new generation which had emerged since the country voted on abortion in 1983 were outraged. They were not demoralised by the defeats of the 1980s. They took to the streets in huge numbers in demonstrations that had been organised by the tiny forces of the revolutionary left and feminist groups. In the week after the High Court decision there were pickets and demonstrations on a daily basis. In one school in Dublin 200 schoolgirls defied the nuns and walked out with a banner which said, ‘Let us decide’. At the weekend demonstration 14,000 people took to the streets of Dublin. Many of those who joined the demonstration had previously voted with SPUC. But it was one thing to oppose abortion in the abstract because of Catholic principles. It was quite another to impose barbarism on a real human being. The militancy of the demonstration indicated that there would have been riots on the streets of Dublin if the 14 year old in the X case had not been freed. The Supreme Court reversed the High Court’s decision and twisted the meaning of the SPUC amendment to the Irish constitution to create more openings for abortion. The bigots had been forced to eat their words.

The effects of this defeat on the Catholic church have astounded those familiar with Irish history. The X case brought about everything the bigots feared – it opened the ‘floodgates’. Four months after the X case, Dublin saw its first Gay Pride march in seven years. A year afterwards homosexuality was decriminalised and the legal age of consent was set at 17, compared to the British age of 18. Later when a government minister from the Labour Party was found cruising in a gay area of Phoenix Park, the police leaked the story to the media in the hope of provoking a backlash. The atmosphere was such that he held his seat amidst statements that it was a ‘personal matter’. Condoms were also made fully legal and vending machines started appearing in Irish pubs. Information on abortion was made fully legal and in the referendum in 1992 abortion was accepted under limited and restricted circumstances. In all these instances the bishops have been forced to retreat.

If the Catholic church has taken a hammering, so too has Fianna Fail. The upsurge of anger over abortion coincided with a series of scandals that started to unravel the close connections between Fianna Fail and sections of the business class. Fianna Fail has traditionally projected itself as part of the ‘plain people’ of Ireland. But a scandal in the beef industry showed that the leading company, Goodman International, was paying more into Fianna Fail funds than it had paid in taxes to the Irish state. Throughout the 1980s the company had only paid 1 percent of its tax bill while Irish workers were shouldering the tax burden. Other scandals soon followed as the captains of Irish industry fell out under pressure of the recession.

At the end of 1992, when a general election was called, the scale of opposition was revealed. Fianna Fail got its lowest vote since 1927. In urban areas it faced a huge decline in working class votes. In 1994 Fianna Fail got a repeat of this experience in Dublin. Its vote sunk to below 20 percent just above that of the Green Party! A party that once had cumann (branches) in every ward and parish is seeing its membership melt away. The Fianna Fail leader recently revealed that Fianna Fail now has less than 2,000 members in Dublin where it previously had 12,000. In the rural areas the party is still holding its base – but in the cities it is treated with contempt by huge sections of workers whose fathers and mothers looked on past Fianna Fail politicians with respect.

The initial beneficiary of the move away from Fianna Fail was the weak Irish Labour Party. It became the focus of a huge desire for change. It seemed to represent the new Ireland. It had a modern image. It seemed to want to face up to the church. And it stood for some recognition of the realities of class conflict in Irish society. One of its main election themes was the need to break the ‘golden circle’ where Fianna Fail dispensed patronage and favours to its financial backers.

In 1992 it got its highest vote ever and trebled its vote compared to the election of 1987. The Labour Party put up only 45 candidates and most of them topped the poll under Ireland’s proportional representation system. Although the vote still remained modest by the terms of European social democracy it seemed that class politics had finally arrived in the South.

However, no sooner were the elections over than Labour began to betray its supporters. Instead of calling on the two right parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, to form a government, they entered into talks with Fianna Fail and formed a coalition. For the Labour leaders it was simply a decision about how best to get access to the privileges and pomp of office. But the left wing of the party also embraced the decision enthusiastically. The Labour left came from an older generation who had been influenced by milder forms of Stalinism. After the collapse of the USSR their politics shifted to ‘realism’ and an accommodation with the market. From outside the party, Sinn Fein offered the advice that coalition was the only realistic road. If Irish society was showing signs of entering a new period of struggle, the traditional elements of the left were still caught in their past. All the accumulated illusions about Fianna Fail being ‘more progressive’ than the more pro-British Fine Gael, about the need to mix the red of social democracy with the green of Irish nationalism, came to the surface.

The participation of Labour in government has been a disaster and has led to widespread disillusionment. Labour ministers have pressed the management of state companies to impose wage cuts on their workers. They have stood by the Fianna Fail leader, Reynolds, when he was found to be selling off Irish passports to a millionaire who invested in his pet food company. They have delayed introducing a referendum on divorce and backed down in a confrontation with the church over the management of schools. They have supported a vicious Public Order Bill which allows for six months imprisonment for ‘abusive words’ on leaflets and placards. Fianna Fail has used Labour’s presence in government to present itself as more of a ‘left of centre party’ in the hope of relating to changes that are happening in Irish society. Meanwhile opinion polls show that support for Labour is tumbling as anger mixes with disillusionment.

While the South has been subject to major political shifts, new developments also indicate that there are also real possibilities – and dangers – in the North.

The North: Britain’s declining interest

The Downing Street Declaration was issued in December 1993. It was hailed by John Major and Albert Reynolds as the document that would bring peace to Northern Ireland within weeks. In reality it was a vague, vacuous document which had been carefully scripted to allow for different meanings and interpretations. However it did contain one significant claim – namely that Britain has no ‘selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’. It presented the British role in Northern Ireland as that of a neutral caring neighbour trying to reconcile those involved in a domestic brawl.

The reality is very different. The activities of the British army have been almost exclusively directed against the nationalist population. The case of Brian Nelson, for example, revealed clearly that the British intelligence services worked closely with the UDA to set up leading nationalist lawyers such as Pat Finucane for assassination. Nelson worked as an agent for MI5 within the ranks of the UDA and helped to organise the importation of weaponry from South Africa. These weapons later played a major role in a random loyalist murder campaign against Catholics. No wonder Amnesty International noted that it:

Has not been convinced that the government has taken adequate steps to halt collusion, to investigate thoroughly and make known the full truth about political killings of suspected government opponents, to bring to justice the perpetrators and dismantle ‘pro-state’ organisations dedicated to political violence or otherwise deter such killings. [42]

Nevertheless, despite the stupendous hypocrisy involved, there is an important truth involved in the statement about Britain’s lack of a strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland today. This represents a major change from the situation in the early 20th century when Britain’s rulers had a vested interest in the partition of Ireland. The ‘revisionist school’ of Irish history, which has sometimes adopted a pseudo-Marxist analysis, is wrong when it claims that ‘British capitalism had no need to partition Ireland to protect its interests, for it was not an essential source of raw materials nor a vital market for British goods’. [43] Britain’s rulers had three main areas of interest in partitioning Ireland.

Firstly, Britain had key economic and military interests in Northern Ireland. Between 1870 and 1910 the labour force in shipbuilding grew five times and Belfast became a key provider of ships for the British Empire. Around the shipbuilding industry there grew a major engineering industry that formed part of an industrial triangle linking Belfast to Manchester and Glasgow. According to one historian:

Linen and shipbuilding were the dominant industries in the north east [of Ireland] ... But Belfast had many other industries as well, most of them springing up to meet the needs of these two giants. Spinning machines, scutching and hacking equipment were made in the city. So were steam engines, foundry products, ropes and heating and ventilating equipment. Manufacturers diversified and produced tea-drying equipment, stable fittings, agricultural machinery, motor cars, mineral waters and cigarettes. [44]

Most of this industry was owned by British firms or by sections of Ulster’s ruling class that looked to Britain. Northern Ireland also provided key military bases for the British army which played an important role in the Second World War.

Secondly, the Irish War of Independence represented a major political threat to the empire itself. The First World War had accelerated the development of national movements in other parts of the empire. A full scale victory of Irish republicanism would have had major repercussions beyond Ireland. The war of independence in Ireland was accompanied by a tremendous wave of workers’ militancy. Towns like Limerick were taken over by trade unionists and a ‘soviet’ was proclaimed. [45] A general strike forced Britain to grant political status to republican prisoners. Railway workers refused to transport British munitions. [46] There was huge sympathy for the Bolshevik revolution. One commentator noted that Catholic communities are:

Generally hostile to socialism and so the socialistic enthusiasm which swept over Ireland during 1919 puzzled many. But there the fact was. Never was Ireland more devoutly Catholic than today ... yet nowhere was the Bolshevik revolution more sympathetically saluted. [47]

The British ruling class feared that the victory of a increasingly radical national movement would set new examples for countries such as Egypt and India. Its own weakness forced it to retreat – but by imposing partition it split the national movement and salvaged some of its status.

Thirdly, partition helped to lock the South of Ireland into a neocolonial relationship with Britain for nearly four decades after formal political independence. The eventual financial settlement which was imposed on the Irish Free State subjected it to a large annual levy for the British exchequer. Cut off from the industrialised North, the South became an economy that was built around the supply of raw materials to Britain. In reality Britain lost little from the independence of the South. Lionel Curtis, an advisor to Winston Churchill, put it a little strongly when he claimed that ‘the making of the Irish Treaty was one of the greatest achievements of the Empire’, [48] but he did indicate the sense of relief in British ruling class circles.

These direct interests of Britain ensured a close and friendly relationship with the Unionist party. The Tory party was known as the Conservative and Unionist Party. Both the Conservative and Labour governments turned a blind eye to the bigotry and discrimination which the Unionists imposed on Northern Ireland. A convention developed in the British House of Commons whereby the ‘internal affairs’ of Northern Ireland were never discussed. Every spurious piece of rhetoric from Southern politicans led to new assurances from Britain that the link with Northern Ireland would never be broken.

However, soon after the Northern state was established, difficulties began to emerge. Initially the Northern state was expected to generate a financial surplus and make a contribution to the empire. But the depression of the 1930s weakened Northern industry and by 1938 the British government officially recognised that it would have to subsidise Northern Ireland. [49] By the end of the 1950s the landscape had changed even more dramatically. Northern Ireland’s main industries were in decline and the state had to turn to multinational capital to help start industries such as artificial fibres. The South too had started to make a shift from a closed protectionist economy that restricted access from British capital to one that was also open to multinational capital. These changes were recognised by Eamonn McCann in his major Marxist account of modern Ireland written in 1974:

By the end of the fifties the economic basis of partition was being eroded. The interests of the dominant classes, North and South, converged. And by the same token, the British interest in Ireland changed ... The British interest now lay not in giving uncritical support to the Orange government in the North, but in balancing between the Orange and the Green, between North and South, between Protestant and Catholic capitalism in Ireland. [50]

Since this was written the changes have accelerated and deepened. Northern Ireland’s manufacturing industry has been rocked to its very foundations. Table 1 illustrates the scale of the decline in employment in some of the key traditional industries.

TABLE 1: Employment in Manufacturing in Northern Ireland
(in thousands)




% change













TOTAL (Manufacturing)




[Source: Northern Ireland Economic Council, Economic Strategy in Northern Ireland 1991, p. 11]

In the case of shipbuilding, for example, losses have risen dramatically. In 1977, for example, Harland and Wolff lost £11.9 million. By 1987 the figure rose to £57.8 million. [51]

However, it is not simply that older manufacturing industries are in decline. There has also been a flight of foreign capital and, in particular, British capital. Employment in externally owned plants has fallen by 53 percent between 1973 and 1990. [52] The largest decline has been in British owned plants which dominated the textile and artificial fibre industries. US companies are now one of the main sources of foreign capital. Ironically, the only other group of foreign capitalists to step up their investments in the North are those from Southern Ireland.

The result has been a sharp decline in the activities of private capital and a greater reliance on the state. Total private sector employment in the North has fallen from 352,200 in 1960 to 288,200 in 1988. [53] By contrast employment in the public sector – including the security sector – has escalated. In 1960, 97,100 were employed in the public sector. By 1988 it had risen to 223,900. [54] No wonder the Economist screamed in horror:

Northern Ireland’s economy resembles more closely that of an Eastern European country than Margaret Thatcher privatising Britain. The ratio of public spending to GDP has been rising inexorably to 78 percent while it has been falling for Britain as a whole. [55]

The result has been a huge rise in British subvention for the North. In 1972 at the beginning of direct rule the British subsidy to Northern Ireland was £100 million. By 1988–9 it has increased to £1.9 billion. [56]

The policy and strategy of the British ruling class has never been shaped by a crude reading of their profit and loss account. They have been willing to lay out considerable sums in the past in military spending that did not seem to have immediate economic benefits. But in the case of Northern Ireland it is no longer a case of short term losses. There has been a withdrawal of key sections of British capital. There has been an effective liquidation of much of Orange capital into the stock exchange and property markets of London. The British army has probably learnt as much as it needs to know about dealing with ‘civil disorders’ by their involvement in the North and now find their overall priorities distorted by this seemingly endless conflict. On top of all this is an awareness in ruling class circles that Britain itself is a shrinking political power in a more dangerous and less stable world. These have all raised major questions about Britain’s continuing interest in the province. Moreover, while Britain has essentially pursued an ad hoc policy over the last 20 years that rested on establishing ‘an acceptable level of violence’, the decline of Britain itself and its growing public sector deficit has added a new urgency to the questioning that is going on in ruling class circles.

This does not mean that Britain is pulling out immediately. The ideal solution that British and Irish rulers favour is the establishment of joint sovereignty under which they both undertake the running of Northern Ireland. The central thrust of the Downing Street Declaration is therefore to institutionalise the sectarian identities of the North by presenting Britain’s rulers as the guardians of Protestant interest and the Southern rulers as guardians of Catholic interests. After a longer period they hope that this might lay the basis for some form of united Ireland.

This shift of Britain’s rulers’ has already meant a further distancing from the Unionist establishment. Unionist politicians, and the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party in particular, are regarded as political dinosaurs who may still have to be tolerated for a brief period. Britain’s rulers have not dismantled the sectarian state – but they have sought to create the space for a more vibrant Catholic middle class to emerge. They increasingly talk about the need to recognise ‘both identities’. This in turn has raised major question marks over the relationship of the Unionist party to the Protestant working class.

The Protestant working class

At the start of ‘the troubles’ the dominant view on the British and Irish left was that the Protestant working class formed a ‘labour aristocracy’.

They were supposed to live a privileged existence that arose from the bribes that imperialism could bestow on them. Michael Farrell used the term ‘labour aristocracy’ to describe Protestant workers explicitly in his important book, Northern Ireland: The Orange States. [57] Geoff Bell was even more direct about the issue:

What privileges there were in Ireland were enjoyed by the Protestant community. The main area of Protestant concentration in Ireland, in the North East, has a higher standard of living, comparable at some levels to that in Britain. [58]

This characterisation of Protestant workers was always wrong and led to disastrous conclusions. It implied that a socialist movement could only be built inside the Catholic working class and even that a civil war might be necessary to bring about a ‘progressive’ solution to the national question.

The notion of Protestant workers being any sort of privileged caste ignored the elementary truth that in a divided working class every worker lost out. Racism and sectarianism are not in the interest of any section of the working class. [59] By dividing workers, by encouraging some to believe that a boss is part of their ‘community’, racist ideas leave workers more open to increased exploitation. If the ‘labour aristocracy’ theory was always wrong, the changes over the last two decades make it even more absurd.

Today Northern Ireland is experiencing a period of mass unemployment which makes it the main jobless blackspot of the UK. By the end of the 1980s unemployment in Northern Ireland was 50 percent worse than Wales or the North of England and three times higher than the rate in the South East of England. [60] Almost 50 percent of the unemployed are long term unemployed compared to a UK average of 27 percent. [61] Huge numbers have found themselves in dead end ‘training schemes’. These levels of unemployment bring all the familiar evils with them. Infant mortality in Northern Ireland, for example, is 120 percent of the level for the UK. [62]

For those at work the situation is also worse for both Catholic and Protestants. Average weekly earnings in Northern Ireland are only 85 percent of the British average even though prices in the region are higher. [63] One quarter of the workers are on part time contracts. [64] The level of desperation that part time workers experience is reflected in the polite language of the Northern Ireland Economic Council:

Part time work tends to be low paid. However, Northern Ireland’s workers exhibit substantial attachment to their jobs suggesting that this employment is not as temporary as has been suggested. [65]

Despite improvement in the notorious housing conditions of the North, a recent Northern Ireland housing survey showed that 8.4 percent of all housing stock is unfit to live in. [66] That is almost twice the British figure. Undoubtedly this is also linked to the high death rate from pneumonia which Northern Ireland experiences. In 1990 the rate of death from pneumonia was four times the UK average. [67]

It may be argued that these average figures hide the divisions between workers. It is certainly the case that Catholic workers experience hardship disproportionately. But Protestant workers are increasingly experiencing low wages, unemployment and poor housing. A report from the Community Development in Protestant Areas group looked at two Protestant working class housing estates in Belfast – Taughmonagh and Clarawood. In Taughmonagh, less than half the workforce was in full time employment. Over two thirds of households had an income of less than £110 a week. Three quarters over 16 year olds had no formal qualifications. In Clarawood over half the households had an income of less than £90 a week. [68] This poverty shows up in terrible educational deprivation. Northern Ireland still implements the vicious 11-plus system which discriminates against all working class pupils. But in the heartland of the Protestant working class, the Shankill Road, only 4 percent of eligible pupils passed the 11-plus in 1988. [69]

In the 1960s the dominant image of the Protestant worker was of the skilled craftsman who worked in shipbuilding or engineering on high wages. Today the typical Protestant worker is likely to experience spells of unemployment, to be working for the public sector, to be earning low wages and to be working alongside Catholics.

These worsening material conditions have coincided with a growing awareness among Protestants of Britain’s changing interest. The result has been high levels of disillusionment as many see that their ‘loyalty to Queen and Country’ is thrown back in their faces. Traditional institutions are now more likely to be treated with contempt by many Protestants. Tens of thousands of Protestant workers, like many others throughout the rest of Britain, now see the monarchy as parasites. The close relationship with the RUC has broken down in many areas. The Unionist parties may still get the vote – but there is a scepticism and a contempt about their inability to bring any improvement. After the Anglo-Irish agreement, which gave Dublin a voice in the running of Northern Ireland, the Unionist vote fell from 43.9 percent of the electorate in 1986 to 36.7 percent in 1987. [70] While this reflected a temporary fluctuation, Unionist politicians have been unable to mobilise many Protestant workers into active opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement. Paisley’s attempt to form a quasi-military Ulster resistance movement was a fiasco. Even when he denounced the 1993 ICTU led peace marches tens of thousands of Protestant workers turned a deaf ear to him. One survey in a Protestant housing estate in Derry summed up the mood when it argued that the residents felt that ‘the old Unionist Corporation had done nothing to improve their poor social conditions’. [71]

The rise of the Catholic middle class

If the Protestant working class have experienced major changes there have also been important developments within the Catholic population. Throughout the 25 years of the Northern conflict there has been an assumption that all Catholics formed a ‘community’. Politicians from John Hume to Bernadette McAliskey have spoken eloquently about the wrongs suffered by this ‘community’. Few mentioned the class divisions among Catholics. The newspaper of Sinn Fein, Republican News, for example, regularly reports on strikes in the South but ignores them in the North. Just as Fianna Fail in the South presented itself as the party of the ‘plain people’, so too have Northern nationalist politicians pretended that to be Catholic in Northern Ireland was to be oppressed and to be poor.

The reality is different. A recent book by Fionnula O’Connor on Northern Catholics has revealed the scale of the class divisions. It shows how a confident Catholic middle class has emerged over the last two decades. [72] Before the troubles the Catholic middle class consisted mainly of the publicans, builders, head teachers and auctioneers who served their own community. One woman interviewed by O’Connor described them as follows:

I associated them with the Gaeilgeori [Irish language users] and clean faces ... small shopkeepers, say on the Falls Road, whose kids went to the same school as me, the respectable people. [73]

The removal of the old Stormont regime and the imposition of direct rule from Britain changed this. What has emerged is a situation which has close parallels with the US.

Thirty years after Martin Luther King started the civil rights movement, the situation for the mass of black people is worse now than it ever was. The median income of black families fell during the 1980s and death from diseases such as asthma rose by 50 percent. [74] A black newborn infant is now twice as likely to die before the age of one than a white baby. But for the black middle class it has been a different story. Despite the fact that they continue to suffer racial prejudice, they have seen their situation improve dramatically. They are the real victors of the civil rights struggle. According to Marable:

In the quarter of a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the number of African American elected officials increased from barely one hundred to nearly 7,000. The number of African Americans enrolled in colleges and universities quadrupled; the gross receipts of black owned businesses and financial institutions increased more than eightfold; the size of the African American middle class and number of professionals significantly expanded. [75]

The US government responded to the black civil rights movement by a programme of ‘affirmative action’ which was partially a concession to the movement and partially a deliberate strategy to create a substantial middle class that could give it a lever inside the civil rights movement.

The British government has reacted in a similar fashion. It has imposed a fairly strong ‘fair opportunities’ code – but the main beneficiary has not been the Catholic working class who continue to live in ghettoes of high unemployment, but rather a new middle class. The civil service, which is the North’s biggest employer and was once a bastion of discrimination, is now 35 percent Catholic at management level. [76] Catholics, it has to be remembered, now make up 40 percent of the population of the North. In December 1992 the Northern Ireland Office announced that it set as its goal a 25 percent representation of Catholics in the top policy related posts. [77] Outside the civil service there have also been gains for the Catholic middle class. Fully 60 percent of the annual intake of trainee barristers are now Catholic [78] and 30 percent of managers in the private sector are Catholic. [79]

The change is best symbolised in the Malone Road which was once the symbol of Protestant privilege. In the past there was a tiny Catholic chapel on the Malone Road which was mainly used by Catholic domestic servants of the Unionist rich. Today the same Catholic church has been greatly expanded and ‘twinned’ with the poor parish of Twinbrook in West Belfast. The leafy Malone Road is now mainly Catholic.

Similar developments in Derry are noted by Eamonn McCann in the most recent edition of War and an Irish Town:

In the courthouse in Bishop St it is now usually a Catholic lawyer who’ll represent the Crown – unheard of a generation ago. Just along the street, Derry’s only gentleman’s club, the Northern Counties, which did not admit Catholics in the 1960s, now has a majority of Catholic members. Down in the Diamond, the city’s biggest department store, owned until the early 1970s by the ascendancy Austin family, is now in the hands of the Catholic Hassons. [80]

With the growth of this class there has also been a change in their political orientation. In the past the Catholic middle class who operated outside their ghettoes attempted to ingratiate themselves with the Unionist establishment. Right up to the 1980s they mainly voted for the softer Unionist party, the Alliance party, and presented themselves as loyal citizens of the UK. But today the Catholic middle class are brimming with a new confidence. They want to assert their Irishness and see no reason to bow the knee to Orangeism. They support Gaelic games and are openly proud of it. They don’t see why they cannot sing the Irish national anthem or commemorate 1916. One Catholic businessman interviewed by O’Connor expressed their sentiments:

I remember being in the Balmoral Golf Club on Saturday night when there was a dance and then they played God save the Queen. Looking around, I realised, God, 60 percent of the people here are Catholic: who’s insisting on this? …

What I see is, among people of my children’s age and people like me who’ve got this far in their lives, we do want to be part of Ireland, to say we’re Irish – but we’re not going to let anything go on up here that we are not part of. This is our place too, and it’s taken us long enough to get this far. [81]

For this class of Catholic the goal of a united Ireland is a dream that they identify with – but they can wait. In the meantime they want to be able to assert their ‘cultural identity’ and to have a real recognition of ‘the two traditions’. Yuppie nationalism finds its symbol in John Hume but it increasingly reaches beyond him. The new confidence of the Catholic middle class means that they also want to assume their ‘rightful place’ as leaders of their own communities. As Marable has pointed out with regards to the black middle class in the US, the very precariousness of their position means that the middle class that has emerged from a civil rights movement want some degree of mobilisation to assert their goals. [82] In the case of the black middle class this takes the form of voter registration drives to build up their power block in the Democratic Party.

In Northern Ireland the Catholic middle class also need to call on extra political reserves to safeguard and expand their new positions. This can mean calling on Dublin for additional support. The Anglo-Irish agreement created a space for the Dublin government to be consulted on the running of the North. But the Catholic middle class would like to see the process go further and have clear recognition given to the fact that Dublin can function as their protector.

But this can only happen if some settlement is at hand. This is not unlikely. Developments inside Sinn Fein and the IRA indicate that they are looking for a way out of the conflict.

The republicans: coming in from the cold?

The left in Ireland has traditionally adopted one of two attitudes to Irish republicans. Organisations such as the Democratic Left – which grew out of the Workers Party – continue to regard them as ‘quasi-fascists’ who are engaged in mindless violence. Others take a similar, though not as extreme, view. The Militant organisation regularly equates the IRA with the UDA/UVF and effectively brands it as the cause of violence in the North by refusing to call for a withdrawal by the British army. On the opposing side are remnants of groups like Peoples Democracy which have had some impact in the past. These believed that the IRA and Sinn Fein contained the vanguard of the Irish revolution. The role of the left was to act as their advisers.

Neither approach is correct. The IRA was born out of a movement that fought oppression. In 1968, when tens of thousands started marching for civil rights, the IRA was a tiny, disorganised and demoralised grouping. [83] But when the civil rights movement was met by the violence of the Northern state, thousands started to look for a political response. They soon found themselves in confrontation with the British army which wanted to shore up and protect the Northern state before gradually weaning the Unionist politicians towards reform. A series of events between 1968 and 1972 laid the basis for the building of a mass base for republicanism – August 1969 saw attacks on Catholic areas from the RUC and B specials; in 1970 the Falls Road was placed under curfew by the British army and five civilians were murdered; in August 1971 hundreds of Catholics were interned and tortured; in January 1972 14 civilians were murdered by the British army in Derry. Each event added to the scale and tempo of recruitment to the IRA. By 1971, for example, the previously demoralised IRA had recruited 1,000 members to its Belfast brigade alone. [84] It is precisely because the IRA emerged out of the fight against oppression that revolutionaries can find themselves on the same side against the British state.

But it is necessary for socialists to go much further. Struggles against oppression, particularly when they are not going forward, are often surrounded by moralism. The hardship and sufferings that are experienced by the oppressed, combined with the relative weakness of those involved, leads to demands for ‘loyalty’ and no criticism. This has to be resisted. The experience of history has always been that nationalist movements eventually seek to make their peace with the system – their fight is not against capitalism itself. As a result, whatever gains that are made invariably accrue to the middle class or the upper class. It is not simply a matter of the final outcome of nationalist movements. In the case of Ireland the nationalist politics of the IRA has led to a complete underestimation of the strength of organised labour. The focus of all struggle becomes an armed campaign. [85]

In reality this tactic has become more and more counterproductive. The bombing of mainly Protestant towns has helped drive hundreds into the ranks of the UDA. It has alienated the thousands of workers throughout the South who despise the British army but today cut themselves off from any involvement in what is happening in Northern Ireland. It has helped to bring about a situation where mass protests in Catholic working class areas today increasingly have a ritualistic character about them. Most of the big marches are for anniversaries of events which happened over 20 years ago. It has tragically confirmed Trotsky’s prediction about any guerrilla campaign which seeks to substitute its own energy for the organisation of the masses:

It belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission. [86]

The approach of revolutionaries in Ireland has therefore been clear. They have neither seen the IRA as a ‘sectarian’ force nor as potential agents for the liberation of Catholic workers, still less the wider working class. Instead revolutionaries have pointed to the British army and the Northern state as the principal causes of violence in Ireland. The objection to republicanism has been that its politics and tactics could not offer a way of defeating these forces and removing sectarianism.

This standpoint is more relevant now than ever before. The strategy which dominated republicanism in the 1980s has run out of steam. This involved a combination of the armed struggle and use of the ballot box. It also meant using a more left wing rhetoric in the hope of building a base among workers in the South. But Sinn Fein’s vote in the North has now reached a plateau and it finds itself under greater military attack from loyalist forces. The attempt to expand into the Southern working class has been a dismal failure. The view that the South was a ‘neocolony’ of Britain and therefore that workers could be won to a vague ‘anti-imperialism’ has proved a fantasy.

The collapse of this strategy has meant that Sinn Fein has lowered its sights. Gone is the talk of winning a united Ireland in the short term. Instead Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has not ruled out ‘interim measures’ such as joint sovereignty. The fact that Sinn Fein is looking for compromise is what has made the Downing Street Declaration possible.

Here Sinn Fein is part of the common pattern of national liberation movements around the world. Gerry Adams has hailed the Israel-PLO deal as ‘courageous first steps’ and claimed that the lesson was that ‘a peace process is possible in the most difficult of conflicts’. [87] In the 1980s organisations such as the African National Congress in South Africa, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the FMLN in El Salvador were seen as the focus of opposition to the system. Today they are increasingly becoming proponents of moderation and sacrifice before the dictates of world capital. The FMLN, for example, which was once regarded as one of the most left wing guerrilla organisations of the world, is now engaged in a peace pact with the butchers of ARENA and has argued for an amnesty of those found guilty of human rights abuses. [88] This shift has been associated with the fall of communism. In fact, its roots go far deeper.

Nationalist movements in the 20th century have often sought to win a working class base by a left wing or populist language. But the working class is invariably seen as a battering ram to open the doors for a new nationalist elite. The suffering and the heroism of the poor are celebrated by nationalist ideologues but there is a cold scepticism about the ability of that same class to liberate itself. The goal of these movements remains the development of their particular nation rather than the advance of the working class. Because they do not set out to fight the overall system, they eventually come to a compromise with it. There is no reason to believe that Irish republicans will behave any differently.

Indeed, the rhetoric of republicanism has already registered a significant shift. Their key aim now is to forge an alliance with the right wing leader of Fianna Fail, Albert Reynolds. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has already attacked ‘the fiction that Sinn Fein is out to undermine the authority of the Southern state’. [89] At the Sinn Fein conference in 1994, not a word of criticism was to be heard of Reynolds despite the fact that Fianna Fail is increasingly loathed by many Southern workers. Instead, Adams told the delegates that their aim was ‘winning the backing of the Dublin government and co-operating to obtain powerful international allies’. [90] The reference to international allies may be a little mystifying. But today Sinn Fein is tremendously impressed by the way that the Irish lobby in the US has won a hearing with Bill Clinton. It hopes that US pressure can be used to nudge Britain towards a settlement. This explains why Sinn Fein has pressed Clinton to send a ‘peace envoy’ to the North. All of this has political implications. When the US ambassador was visiting Derry, Sinn Fein members were told to have nothing to do with a picket that protested about the continuing sanctions directed at Iraq.

This shift in republican politics has occurred before any settlement has been reached. It merely indicates what is yet to come. There can be little doubt of the desire of the Sinn Fein leadership to make the full transition to a proper party that operates within the system. But so far it has received little by way of concrete inducements from the British government. The Downing Street Declaration made no reference to the freeing of the hundreds of republican prisoners. It gave no concrete promises that the RUC or the British army might be withdrawn from the areas where they are hated and despised. The British ruling class may have a long term desire to disengage from the North, but they are, for the moment, nervous about dealing openly with a guerrilla movement on their own doorstep. This means that the ‘peace process’ between Sinn Fein and the British may be more protracted than was originally thought.


For the moment then Irish politics are dominated by two central themes – the growing social tensions in the South and the prospects of the ‘peace process’ in the North. This is the terrain on which the left has to start building – and building quickly. The stakes are high. A failure to build a fighting socialist force in Ireland raises new prospects of growing ethnic conflicts about ‘identities’ and even a regression from the social advance that has occurred in the South.

One key area for the left is the Protestant working class. The declining interest of Britain and the worsening material conditions of Protestant workers have led to a crisis of confidence in Unionism. How this is to be resolved is an open question. One real possibility is a growth of the extreme right. Recent estimates put the current strength of the UDA/UVF at 2,300. [91] The youth organisation of the UDA, Young Militant, may contain over 1,000 members on a loosely organised basis. These organisations are stronger in areas of high unemployment where fewer Protestants meet Catholics through work. However, it has also become apparent that these organisations are now receiving active support from a section of the Unionist middle class who find themselves in growing competition with their Catholic counterparts, and who fear that any constitutional adjustments will further undermine their access to privilege.

This explains why the former mayor of Belfast, Sammy Wilson, from the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party, has praised the UDA’s plans for the ethnic cleansing of Catholics from particular areas of the North as ‘realistic’. Other Unionist figures are not far behind in their attempted rapprochement with the killer squads. The ‘liberal’ Unionist Christopher McGimpsey has admitted having had talks with the UDA about the Downing Street Declaration. Spokespersons for the UDA have in turn pointed to their links with the respectable elements of Unionism. One of them boasted that ‘they had unlimited financial assistance and the ability through business contacts on the continent to procure a steady supply of weapons and explosives’. [92] This shift by some Unionist politicians towards greater collusion with loyalist terror gangs was inadvertently alluded to by Reynolds in a remark that was simply glossed over by the media. Reynolds stated that a number of ‘good, solid, Unionists’ told him that they felt under siege and that ‘the traditional way to break out of the siege is to go out and murder some Catholics. People have actually said those words to me’. [93]

The Unionist middle class have much to fear. While the the former captains of Orange industry have simply upped and left, the nature of their social position means that the middle classes are left behind, more dependent on state employment and more subject to increased competition. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1987 set up a structure whereby the Dublin government won a consultative voice in the day to day running of Northern Ireland. In practice it opened a new avenue whereby the middle class SDLP could use Dublin’s civil servants who sat on the inter-governmental conference at Maryfield to channel more funds and resources to its areas. It has meant that the former bastions of middle class privilege such as Queen’s University are now subject to considerable scrutiny and have been forced to accept policies designed to employ more Catholics. The fear of the Unionist middle class is that greater involvement of Dublin will further erode their position which has already been made more insecure by recession and the decline of the Northern economy.

The UDA/UVF have a long way to go before the major sections of the Unionist middle class step into an open alliance with them. The majority of the Unionist middle class look to the Unionist party and, to a lesser extent, the DUP as their main defenders. For the moment, the loyalist paramilitaries are seen by the ‘good solid Unionists’ as a reserve force which can be used to increase their leverage with the British and Irish governments. The Unionist politicians merely express ‘understanding’ of the rhetoric and activities of the UDA/UVF. All of this means, however, that they have a stake in whipping up sectarianism. When the UDA claims that Catholic community centres and youth clubs get more resources than those in Protestant areas because of the violence of the IRA, the Unionist leaders do not demur. Indeed, their whole attitude indicates sympathy with this argument.

However, a rise in sectarianism and growth in support for the UDA/UVF is only one possibility. There are also signs that sections of Protestant workers are sickened by the logic of loyalism. In the past the Unionist state sought to bar Catholics from certain jobs. Today the UDA/UVF try to achieve the same end through the use of terror tactics. Among their prime targets for assassination are Catholics who stray out of their area and seek jobs in areas traditionally held by Protestants. But attacks on fellow workers have driven a wedge between the loyalist killer squads and the Protestant workers. When a Catholic contractor was murdered in the overwhelmingly Protestant Shorts factory, 1,000 workers walked out. When Catholic workers on Belfast’s buses were threatened by the UVF, Protestant and Catholic workers took strike action to demand that the threats be withdrawn. Most impressively of all, when Maurice O’Kane, a Catholic welder, was murdered by the UVF at Harland and Wolff, the shop stewards convened a meeting and walked off the site. As one of the stewards put it, ‘Maurice has three sons working in the yard. We had a duty to protect them. Working class lives are hard enough without these threats of murder’. [94] It was the first time the shipyards had ever taken such action. In the past, the Harland and Wolff shipyard was notorious for launching pogroms against Catholics.

It is not just in the workplaces that there is opposition to the loyalist thugs. The UDA/UVF regularly include coded messages in their publications about individual Protestants who have been seen going out with ‘Fenians and papists’. They also try to target Protestants who are involved in mixed marriages. All of these activities are held in contempt by the vast majority of Protestant workers. The most dramatic indication of this disgust came after the murder of Margaret Wright. She went to a late night drinking club run by the UVF in the Village area in Belfast. She was mistaken for a Catholic and beaten to death on the dance floor of the club. Afterwards, 600 local people gathered and demanded that the UVF club be bulldozed down.

As conditions worsen, as Protestant workers become more aware that Britain’s rulers have no interest in their loyalty, they are presented with a choice: either they are pulled into the orbit of the thugs of the UDA who are achieving a greater weight within the politics of Unionism, or they begin to break from the logic of loyalism and seek to identify with those Catholic workers who are under threat.

Here is where the scale, intensity and outcome of the class struggle in Britain over the next period are so important. Notions of class and class solidarity have always featured strongly in the lives of Northern workers, co-existing in uneasy and contradictory ways with the intense sectarianism. Union membership in Northern Ireland stands at 38 percent of the workforce, similar to that in Britain itself. [95] More union members in Northern Ireland have been on strike than their counterparts in Britain. [96] Belfast on May Day is probably one of the few cities in the UK that resembles Yorkshire in its traditional observance of workers’ day as 1,000 trade unionists regularly take to the streets. A rise in industrial militancy across Britain will inevitably affect the North as well. When Catholic and Protestant workers fight alongside each other, it makes the propaganda of the UDA appear even more disgusting. If some of those struggles end in victory, it can broaden the horizon of workers and help to make class appear as a more important source of identity than sectarianism.

That at least has been the experience of the past. The only time sectarianism has been overcome in the North has been in the heat of class struggle. In the near revolutionary upheavals of 1919, Catholic and Protestant workers fought together. During the unemployment crisis of the 1930s the Falls and the Shankill fought together against the RUC. Even in the midst of the Second World War, when patriotic fervour was at its height, Catholics and Protestants fought together in 1944 against the arrest of their shop stewards. [97] This history makes Northern Ireland fundamentally different to Israel and South Africa, to which it is sometimes compared.

But if the class struggle in Britain is important, so too is the struggle in Southern Ireland. At the start of the troubles in 1968, the average Protestant worker could make a relatively easy transition between ‘being British’ and seeing him or herself as relatively superior to workers in the impoverished Southern state. Today when ‘being British’ means being part of Europe’s cheap labour economy that transition is not so easy. But though the old illusions are dying, there is still a big question about the nature of the South for many Protestant workers.

Here is where the current struggles in the South can make a difference. If Southern workers begin to take on their employers and also start to break from the domination of the church then this can have a tremendous influence on Protestant workers. But of course, none of this is automatic. The upturn in struggle in the South began at a political level before it touched the workplaces. There were more delegations, for example, from girls’ schools on the X case march than there were from workplaces. Few trade union banners have appeared on the big demonstrations against Thorp, the nuclear reprocessing station, or the demonstrations in solidarity with the anti-fascist struggles in Europe. This represented a major weakness.

For one thing, the Catholic right are still a force waiting on the wings of Southern society. The defeats they suffered on the abortion issue were serious but not fatal. For decades the Catholic right had the ear of the Fianna Fail politicians either directly or indirectly through the bishops. They believed – with some justification – that they represented the ‘real Ireland’. In the aftermath of the X case, however, they shifted from being regarded as an important pressure group to being seen as a liability. This shift in their status has forced the Catholic right to reconsider their tactics. They are now being pulled in two directions. A minority around Youth Defence are more willing to use violence against their left wing opponents and women’s activists. A recent picket at the Irish parliament, for example, found itself subject to an attack by Youth Defence fanatics.

But the majority of the bigots are adopting a more political strategy. They have formed an organisation called Solidarity and have started to broaden their agenda beyond the issues of abortion and sexuality. Their propaganda focuses on the need to preserve ‘family farms’. They want more indigenous Irish industry to replace the multinationals which they blame for creating unemployment. They want more support for married women to stay at home. They want a stronger reassertion of Irish culture and a more militant stance against ‘the Brits’. In a more sinister development, they point to the Jewish background of the Labour minister for equality, Mervyn Taylor, who they claim is undermining ‘Christian values’. [98] Their aim is the creation of an extreme right wing populist movement which can relate to the growing anger in Southern society. In the longer term, it cannot be ruled out that such a movement can shift from right wing social Catholicism to an embrace of fascist politics similar to that of Dolfuss in the 1930s in Austria.

However the Catholic right have only just started to regroup and are a long way from relating to the anger that presently exists. Southern Ireland still resembles the experience of Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. [99] In both countries, the process of modernisation did not lead to a gradual shift to a more liberal society. Instead big struggles developed as the old order was shaken. In the process significant numbers became radicalised. But, as Italy shows, radicalisation alone is not sufficient to remove the right wing who occupy positions of power. In Ireland, the bigots still have friends in high places. The Irish Medical Council, for example, has been taken over by groups of right wing doctors and now refuses to implement any form of abortion. High Court judges, such as Justice O’Hanlon, speak out openly against a government which has ‘decriminalised sodomy’. [100] The right wing still have a network of schools and parish institutions at which they can rebuild their base. And most important they have a target: a government with Labour ministers who have severely disappointed their supporters. The son of the disgraced Fianna Fail leader, Haughey, gave an indication of the type of attack that the right can mount. He denounced ‘the steamroller approach of the Labour party on abortion and divorce’ and connected it with the party’s desire for ‘Mercs, perks and expensive hotels’. [101]

Whether or not the political radicalisation that has emerged in the South is sustained therefore depends on whether there is shift from an adherence of alternative lifestyles and values to a real engagement with working class struggles. Without that shift, the gains that have been made in the South can be turned aside and the right can re-emerge as a force.

Fortunately, the political radicalisation is now matched by a rise in working class militancy. Ever since Fianna Fail returned to power in 1987, it adopted a strategy of co-opting the union leaders and managing the economy through social partnership agreements where workers are tied to centrally negotiated pay norms. These agreements have included no-strike clauses which gave the employers a free hand to push through major changes at the level of the workplace which resulted in big increases in productivity. Workers are now becoming keenly aware that their sacrifices have not been matched by the employers. Unemployment still stands at 18 percent of the workforce. A full 27 percent of Southern workers are earning less than £150 a week. [102] Everywhere there are attempts to introduce ‘yellow pack workers’ – workers who start on lower pay rates and enjoy no holiday or sick pay benefits.

The mood among workers has therefore started to shift. In the past tens of thousands emigrated – but today they are more likely to be forced to stay in Ireland and start thinking about collective responses to their situation. The mood of anger still co-exists with the legacy of defeat in the 1980s. Workers want to fight – but they are not yet sure they can win. Beyond the top union bureaucracy there is a wide layer of shop stewards who have accepted the arguments about ‘new realism’ and still desire partnership with their employers. The shift in mood and the continuing problems are illustrated most clearly in a dispute at Team-Aer Lingus. The company demanded wage cuts and layoffs in the national airline. When the issue first emerged, socialists who took their banners on workers’ marches were thrown off as troublemakers. But almost a year later there is a good awareness of what happened during the Air France dispute, because socialists have been leafleting the workplace. No Team march takes place now without a speaker invited from socialist organisations. Yet the mood of militancy still clashes with the pessimism of the shop steward leadership who believe that industrial action does not win.

This is where politics count. Many of the thousands who shifted to the left during the fight against the power of the church will find their way into the workplace. So too will those – often the same people – who are moved by the threat of fascism in Europe today. They know that militancy can overcome the defeats of the past. These radicalised political layers can play a major role in overcoming the inertia of some of the older working class leaderships. But they have to be convinced to argue this with their fellow workers. And the type of politics that emerge in the workplace do not just stop at how to fight redundancies or wage cuts – but can also include arguments about the position of women in Irish society or how the problem of the North is to be solved.

The emergence of a working class movement in the South which fused the anger about economic ‘sacrifice’ with a desire to break the grip of Fianna Fail and the church would have a major impact on Northern Protestant workers. It would help make class the touchstone of identity rather than appeals to a sectarian past. By contrast, the sectarian bigots of the North and South can also help to reinforce and strengthen each other. The re-emergence of the Catholic right in the South could become a major factor in persuading Protestant workers that there is no hope but to defend their own.


The key issue in Irish politics, then, is whether class or ethnic identity come to the fore in the coming years. Every political movement has to be judged in terms of that question.

For official Irish society this, of course, is barely an issue. National identity is assumed to be intrinsic and natural. The British and Irish ruling classes may believe that the constitutional settlement of 1922 has to be readjusted to allow for a new balance of power between Catholics and Protestants. But despite all the talk of ‘solving the national question’ any bourgeois solution in Ireland will merely institutionalise the sectarian divisions that now exist. The British and Irish rulers will seek to create structures which allow these divisions to be managed rather than removed. In the process, they hope to keep the old right wing watchwords at the heart of Irish politics. The Fianna Fail leader, Reynolds, for example, claimed that a new Ireland could see the two ‘great forces’ of Fianna Fail and the Unionist party coming together and promised that one third of elite positions in any new state would be reserved for Unionist supporters.

Any settlement that emerges from the British and Irish ruling classes will be inherently unstable. Not only will sectarianism remain institutionalised but it will do so in conditions of ever growing poverty for many workers. The dangers are obvious. Europe at the moment is full of political adventurers who see the crisis as a way of winning a base for their particular shade of extreme right opinion. A rearranged constitutional settlement of Ireland would provide ample material for stirring up new ethnic and sectarian hatreds. In the process those sections of the Unionist middle class who collude with the UDA can quickly recognise their mirror image opponents among the bigots of the South. A conservative settlement in Ireland in the 1990s will have far more devastating effects than that of the 1920s.

It is against these prospects that all oppositional movements have to be evaluated. For most of its history a large section of the Irish left has viewed republicanism as the vehicle for rapid social advance. The very weakness of the working class seemed to call for a substitute force that drew on the mainspring of native radicalism. In the 1890s James Connolly saw little else on the bleak landscape of Irish working class politics and named his first organisation the Irish Socialist Republican Party. The workers’ army he established in 1913, the Irish Citizen Army, dissolved itself into the republican Irish Volunteers after his death. Connolly’s son Roddy set up the Irish Communist Party and focused its efforts on trying to convince the republicans to shift left. As late as the 1970s, hundreds of Irish left wingers were pulled towards the Irish Republican Socialist Party which seemed to offer the final fusion of Marxism and native radicalism. [103] Historically, that section of the left which looked to republicanism was often subjectively the most revolutionary. The others who recoiled from republicanism often became ardent supporters of the status quo. The Workers Party, for example, who regarded the republicans as ‘proto-fascists’ became avid defenders of censorship in the South and the RUC in the North.

Today, however, republicanism is at a turning point. As the leadership seek to follow the path of Arafat and Mandela they are keenly aware of their own history of divisions. Every time the movement has tried to move decisively towards an accommodation with the system a section has split off to engage in the age old tactic of armed struggle. When the republican leadership accepted the treaty in 1922, it provoked a civil war. When de Valera tried to move those opposed to the treaty towards involvement in parliament in 1926, he had to set up Fianna Fail and see the IRA continue its involvement in armed struggle. As late as the 1980s Adams and McGuinness, the current leadership, had to witness a split in their ranks as they argued for an end to the policy of abstention from the Irish parliament. The splits have emerged because of the divided class basis of the movement. Republicanism has always included the most conventional of would be politicians alongside radicals who have seen armed struggle as the only way of expressing their anger at the system.

It is difficult to predict with any certainty what will happen to republicanism. But broadly we can say that either significant sections of the movement will be incorporated into some form of all Ireland settlement or it will become a smaller oppositional movement that relies increasingly on the counterproductive strategy of armed struggle, shorn of any strategy or hope. At the root of the weakness of modern republicanism has been its belief that it could only identify with the aspirations of the oppressed Catholic community of the North. In the 1970s, when the revolt of the Catholic working class was at its height, republicanism could mount a real challenge to the system. Despite its right wing ideas at the time, republicanism had the confidence to believe that British imperialism would be driven out of Ireland and that the Southern state would be toppled in the process and replaced by an ‘Eire Nua’ (new Ireland). But when that revolt did not break through, it became more ghettoised and more cynical. The very aspects of oppression that fuelled the anger against the system as a whole also contained elements within it which saw Protestant workers as near fascists and Southern workers as pampered traitors. When the struggle was going forward these latter elements were barely expressed undercurrents. As the struggle moved towards a dead end in the 1980s, the elements of separatism and contempt for Protestant workers, in particular, became more prominent. Yet in reality the stress on separatism, on not just promoting but virtually developing a distinct ‘national culture’ in the Catholic areas, has only benefited the Catholic middle class and done nothing for the working class adherents of republicanism.

The manner in which republicanism can cut against the grain of working class struggle has become more obvious as the possibility of workers’ unity has grown. In 1993, for example, health workers in the North faced major battles against trust status. The fate of the mainly Protestant workforce in the Jubilee hospital was bound together with that of the mainly Catholic workforce of the Royal Victoria in West Belfast. And most workers understood this. Huge protests and demonstrations brought Catholic and Protestant workers onto the streets against the Tory plans. But Republican News could only talk about the Catholic hospital and complained that ‘jobs lost in West Belfast are less politically sensitive than elsewhere’. [104] In fact, the Tories have no sensitivity about cutting any workers’ jobs. By focusing on their own community the republicans only played to the Tories’ divide and rule tactics. Worse, however, was to follow. When Protestant workers in the Shorts factory walked out in defence of the Catholic murdered by the UDA, republicans simply dismissed its significance. When the Harland and Wolff shipyard stopped, the action could not be ignored and Republican News ran the banner headline on its front page, Shipyard of shame. It discussed at length the sectarian history of the yard without once supporting the walkout by the Protestant workforce. More graphically than anything else it showed that republicans regard Protestant workers as simply the objects of history rather than part of a class which has the potential to liberate itself. Not surprisingly, Gerry Adams has claimed that what Protestants need is ‘a de Klerk type figure’. [105]

The separatism which pervades republicanism makes it weaker and all the more likely to adapt to the system. One journalist aptly wrote that the republicans are ‘attempting to keep the Major-Reynolds bus waiting while Adams talks the drivers into going an extra bit further in his direction’. [106] The driver will, of course, also be demanding a fare for the ticket. If and when the republicans move closer to a settlement they will use all the authority that has come out the sacrifice of struggle to promote ‘realism’ and ‘disipline’ among their supporters. That in turn would only help to increase the bitterness which sees Protestants rather than bosses as their chief competitors and enemies. Republicanism today has not only not got the slightest notion of socialism, it is also incapable of meeting the vision of its founder, Wolfe Tone, in creating an Ireland which ‘unites Catholic Protestant and dissenter’.

That task falls to the still small forces of the revolutionary left.


1. Forward, 21 March 1914.

2. G. Bell, The Protestants of Ulster (London 1976), p. 40.

3. See M. Farrell, Arming the Protestants (London 1983), for how the auxiliary forces were formed along sectarian lines.

4. M. Goldring, Belfast: From Loyalty to Rebellion (London 1991), p. 123.

5. P. Devlin, Straight Left: an autobiography (Belfast 1993).

6. Ibid., p. 132.

7. A. Boyd, Have the Trade Unions Failed the North? (Cork 1984), p. 72.

8. The Fianna Fail party has often claimed to be more than a mere political party and instead to be a real movement of the Irish people. See D. Walsh, The Party: Inside Fianna Fail (Dublin 1986).

9. See C. Kostick, Why the Irish Labour Party Fails (Dublin 1993).

10. P. Mair, Explaining the Absence of Class Politics in Ireland, in J Goldthorpe and C Whelan, The Development of Industrial Society in Ireland (Oxford 1992), p. 386.

11. D. Walsh, The Party: Inside Fianna Fail (Dublin 1986), p. 32.

12. J.P. O’Carroll, Eamon de Valera, Charisma and Political Development, in J.P. O’Carroll and J.A. Murphy (eds.), De Valera and His Times (Cork 1983), p. 33.

13. J. Praeger, Building Democracy in Ireland (Cambridge 1986), p. 208.

14. Dail Debates, 12 July 1928.

15. Quoted in T. Ryle Dwyer, De Valera (Dublin 1991), p. 134.

16. The Nation, 5 October 1929.

17. Dail Debates, 22 March 1928.

18. Dail Debates, 2 November 1927.

19. L. Trotsky, Lesson of the Events in Dublin, in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International 1907–1916 (New York 1984), p. 373.

20. CSO Statistical Abstracts, 1932.

21. The Labour Party leader, Tom Johnson, claimed that ‘there was no justification in law or morality’ for not paying the land annuities. The Irishman, 25 August 1928.

22. See C. McCarthy, Trade Unions in Ireland 1894–1960 (Dublin 1977).

23. Labour News, January 1966.

24. National Income and Expenditure Reports 1958–1973.

5. M. Nic Ghiolla Phadraig, Religious Practice and Secularisation in P. Clancy (ed.), Ireland: a Sociological Profile (Dublin 1990), p. 94.

26. Conference of Major Religious Superiors, Profile of Religious in Ireland, (Dublin 1990), p. 94.

27. Quoted in J. Whyte, Church and State in Modern Ireland 1923–1979 (Dublin 1980), pp29–30.

28. Minutes of the Central Council of Congress of Irish Unions, 30 March 1951.

29. Congress of Irish Unions, Annual Report 1951, pp. 37–38.

30. Quoted in J. Connolly, Labour, Nationality and Religion (Dublin 1972), p. 10.

31. M. Nic Ghiolla Phadraig, Religious Practice and Secularisation, op. cit., p. 147.

32. Ibid.

33. E. Strauss, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy (London 1951), p. 104.

34. Ibid.

5. R. Breen, D. Hannan, D. Rottman, C. Whelan, Understanding Contemporary Ireland (Dublin 1990), p. 104.

36. E. Hazelhorn, Class, Clientilism and Political Process in the Republic of Ireland, in P. Clancy (ed.), Ireland: a Sociological Profile, op. cit., p339.

37. J. Wickham, The Politics of Divided Capitalism in A Morgan and B Purdie, Divided Nation, Divided Class (London 1980), p. 59.

38. Ibid.

39. J. Goldthorpe and C. Whelan, The Development of Industrial Society in Ireland (Oxford 1992), p. 389.

40. W. Roche and J. Larragy, The Trend of Unionisation in the Republic in UCD (eds.), Industrial Relations in Ireland (Dublin 1987).

41. B. Walsh, Labour Force Participation and the Feminisation of the Labour Force (Dublin 1992), pl.

42. Amnesty International, Political Killings in Northern Ireland (London 1994), p. 2.

43. B. Probert, Beyond Orange and Green (London 1978), p. 46.

44. Quoted in R. Munck, The Irish Economy: Results and Prospects (London 1993), p. 48.

45. See E. O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland (Cork 1988).

46. See A. Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics (Dublin 1985).

47. A. de Blacam, What Sinn Fein Stands For (Dublin 1920), pp. 105–106.

48. K. Allen, Is Southern Ireland a Neocolony? (Dublin 1990).

49. R. Munck, The Irish Economy, op. cit., p. 52.

50. E. McCann, War and an Irish Town (London 1993), pp.  179–180.

51. NIEC, Annual Report 1992–1993 (Belfast 1993), p. 23.

52. Ibid.

53. NIEC, The Private Sector in the Northern Ireland Economy (Belfast 1990), p. 7.

54. Ibid.

55. Quoted in F. Gaffikin and M. Morrissey, Northern Ireland: the Thatcher Years (London 1990), p. 48.

56. Ibid., p. 49.

57. M. Farrell, Northern Ireland: the Orange State (London 1976), pp. 16–17.

58. G. Bell, The Protestants of Ulster, op. cit.

59. In the US, for instance, the racist south has lower wages for both black and white workers than the more integrated north. Indeed white workers in the south are lower paid than black workers in the north. A. Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism in the USA in International Socialism 47, p. 77.

60. F. Gaffikin and M. Morrissey, Northern Ireland: the Thatcher Years, p. 77.

61. NIEC, Economic Assessment 1991 (Belfast 1992), p. 30.

62. NIEC, Demographic Trends in Northern Ireland (Belfast 1986), p. 66.

63. NIEC, The Private Sector in Northern Ireland (Belfast 1988).

64. NIEC, Annual Report 1992–93 (Belfast 1993), p. 4.

65. Ibid.

66. M. Hewitt, Can Protestant and Catholic Workers Unite? (Dublin 1991), p. 13.

67. Ibid.

68. Community Training and Research Services, Poverty Amongst Plenty (Belfast 1993), pp5–6.

69. A. Pollack (ed.), A Citizen’s Inquiry: the Opsahl Report (Dublin 1993), p. 43.

70. A. Hamilton, C. McCartney, T. Anderson and A. Finn, Violence and Communities (Coleraine 1990), p. 5.

71. Ibid.

72. F. O’Connor, In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland (Belfast 1993).

73. Ibid., p. 21.

74. M. Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion (London 1991), p. 208.

75. Ibid., p. 185.

76. F. O’Connor, op. cit., p15.

77. Ibid.

78. Ibid.

79. Ibid.

80. E. McCann, War and an Irish Town, op. cit., p. 52

81. F. O’Connor, op. cit., pp. 32–33.

82. M. Marable, Black American Politics (London 1985), p. 245.

83. See J. Boyer Bell, The Secret Army (Dublin 1979), pp. 336–350

84. Ibid.

85. For an extension of this argument see K. Allen, Socialism, Republicanism and Armed Struggle (Dublin 1991).

86. L. Trotsky, Against Individual Terrorism (New York 1980), p. 7.

87. Socialist Worker (Ireland), February 1994.

88. CIIR, El Salvador: Wager for Peace (London 1993), p. 21.

89. Socialist Worker (Ireland), February 1994.

90. Quoted from copy of G. Adams’s speech at Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, 1994.

91. Fortnight, February 1994.

92. Ibid.

93. Irish Times, 16 March 1994.

94. Socialist Worker (Ireland), July 1994.

95. P. Stringer and G. Robinson (eds.), Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland (Belfast 1993), p. 68.

96. Ibid., p. 70.

97. The story of many of the joint struggles between Catholic and Protestant workers can be found in M. Hewitt, op. cit.

98. Irish Times, 9 July 1994.

99. For a history of the struggles in Italy see P. Ginsburg, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943–1988 (London 1990).

100. Irish Times, 17 March 1994.

101. Irish Times, 16 March 1994.

102. Figures based on 1987 data from B. Nolan and T. Callan, Poverty and Policy in Ireland (Dublin 1994), p. 118.

103. See J. Holland and H. McDonald, INLA: Deadly Divisions (Torc Books 1994), for a history of the Irish Republican Socialist Party and its armed wing, INLA.

104. Quoted in M. Hewitt, op. cit., p. 32.

105. Copy of speech from G. Adams to Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, 1994.

106. Fortnight, February 1994.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 14.3.2012