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Divide & Rule

Peter Hadden

Divide and Rule



The partition of Ireland was a conscious act on the part of British imperialism chiefly intended to divide the working class along sectarian lines. As the recent troubles have made the publication of works on Irish history more profitable, a host of academics have presented ever newer accounts of the division of the country. In the midst of this welter of publication the above straightforward fact about partition has often been lost sight of. In particular this has been the case among those who have spent their energies seeking some justification to rationalize and excuse the division of Ireland, so that they, in turn, may excuse themselves from opposing this division. Above all, this is true of those who justify partition with the completely false idea that the division of the country somehow reflects the existence of two separate nations in Ireland.

The history of partition itself and, indeed, the entire past history of Ireland completely refute such ideas. Partition was a desperate act, carried out in defence of class interests. Over the previous centuries no less desperate measures were effected by the ruling class in Britain, all likewise designed to further their economic objectives.

Since the first Norman invasion the entire history of Ireland has been a history of struggle against subjugation, conquest and exploitation. This struggle has at all times been more than a battle for mere independence. Conquest meant more than the overrunning of a country. It meant the overthrow of a social system. At every stage the fight to obtain “freedom” has been driven on by the desire of sections of the Irish people to remove one or other form of class rule and oppression. The motor of Irish history has been the social exploitation of its people.

The early clan system, a form of primitive communism, was the first casualty of the Norman Conquest. Imposed was an alien social system based on private ownership of wealth, with rights of inheritance and property sacrosanct.

Landlordism was imposed by the sword. The native Irish were driven from whole tracts of their land, which were given to the “planters” brought across from England and Scotland. These people were intended to be the rock on which British rule would be based and the seemingly endless revolts of the Irish would perish. Sadly for these rulers, one generation after another of these planters became rooted in Ireland, modified and assimilated the customs of their neighbours – in short became Irish.

Rebellion stirred not only among the original inhabitants of the country but among these settlers also. To differing degrees, both were bound by the system of foreign exploitation. To rule in the face of these revolts the British chose to divide. Religion was the chosen instrument of division. Religious intolerance, the fostering of mutual suspicion, hatred and violence between Catholic and Protestant – this became the shield of the ruling administration against the overthrow by the people.

With these methods an entire social system was dissolved. With precisely the same methods Irish society was prevented from undergoing social development in line with other countries. Landlordism meant more than the imposition of terrible conditions on the mass of the Irish peasantry. It meant that the surplus wealth produced by those who toiled on the land was sent to England and consumed by a parasitic breed of absentee owners. The result was the stifling of any nascent industrial development.

Once again foreign domination was clearly shown to be domination by the foremost class interest in the ruling nation. The industrial revolution in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought the accelerated development of new industry and technique. Previously unheard-of wealth fell into the hands of the rising capitalist class. No competition would this class sanction from Ireland and Irish industry. Because of foreign domination and the restrictions imposed by the landlord system, Irish industry was inevitably much weaker than its rival. As British capitalism was slipping out of the womb, Irish capitalism had not passed the foetus stage. It was a tiny organism, dwarfed by semi-feudal social relationships.

Through trade restrictions, tariff barriers, etc., the British capitalists determined that the Irish foetus would be aborted. Ireland was to remain an agricultural colony, a feeding machine for the growing and hungry cities of industrial England. Her offspring, driven by misery and starvation from the land, were to be sucked to the English cities, where they would provide additional cheap labour for the new bosses.

Against such domination the various class interests in Ireland struggled. They did so, however, in differing ways and with vastly differing degrees of determination. Towards the close of the eighteenth century conditions ripened for revolt. The peasantry, the artisans, the embryo of the proletariat, the shopkeepers and small businessmen, even sections of the “Irish” aristocracy, were seething with the spirit of rebellion.

In 1798 the United Irishmen, an armed and secret movement built up over previous years, rose in rebellion. It was one of the greatest movements of the Irish against domination. It welded the Protestant petty bourgeoisie of Belfast and the Protestant tenants of Antrim and Down together with the Catholic peasantry of Connaught, Wexford and elsewhere. But as one of the greatest events in the history of Ireland it revealed in the starkest form the bitter lessons of that history.

From the outset the rising was marked by treachery and confusion. Different areas rose at different times in uncoordinated revolt. Spies and traitors assured that the plans were known to the garrison before the event. Arrests and seizures of arms weakened the muscle of the rising before it even started.

Such chaos was not accidental. It reflected the attitudes of the various class interests involved. The sporadic nature of the fighting demonstrated the absence of a developed bourgeois class neither anxious nor willing to fight for independence. Only in the North was the rising bourgeoisie, because of the greater development of manufacture, able to play a role of any significance. In the rest of the country the aristocrats largely backed the establishment and the small embryonic capitalist class was too weak and too timid to take up the leadership of the struggle. The fighting outside the northeast was almost entirely conducted by the peasantry.

Even those from among the more “well-to-do” who did support the aims of the United Irishmen looked to distinctly different methods of struggle than did their “comrades” among the peasantry and the lower orders in the towns. More fearful of the popular movement and of the “communistic” ambitions they attributed to some within it, they counselled against a go-it-alone policy on the part of the Irish. Instead they looked to the French to come and “liberate” their country for them. United Irish leaders like Henry Joy McCracken and Jemmy Hope were quick to see such “foreign-aid men” for what they were. Hope, in his memoirs written forty years after the rising, commented:

“The appearance of the French fleet in Bantry Bay brought the rich farmers and shopkeepers into the societies, and with them all the corruption essential to the objects of the British Ministry, to foster rebellion, to possess the power of subduing it and to carry a legislative Union. The new adherents alleged, as a reason for their former reserve, that they thought the societies only a combination of the poor to get the property of the rich.”

Nation states arose from the development of capitalism. To the rising capitalist class in countries like England and France fell the lot of sweeping aside feudal particularism, knitting together their national territory and attaining recognition as a separate nation. To replace the power of the feudal heads of society with those of the capitalist state, the bourgeois drew behind them all the oppressed social orders. Having used the lower layers of society as a club to lay waste the vestiges of feudal power and consolidate their own class rule, the bourgeoisie set about curtailing the activities and demands of these layers, very often re-imposing the superstructure of the old system in order to do so.

The Irish bourgeoisie came on to the scene of history late. They emerged to find their weak arms pinned to their sides by the power of their rulers and rivals in England. 1798 proved that they had neither the strength nor the inclination to lead any struggle for independence. The historical mission of the bourgeoisie – to take the leadership of the downtrodden sections of society and carve a place in the world for a nation of their own based on capitalist social relations – they were unable to fulfil. It was not these men of property but those described by the United Irishmen leader Wolfe Tone as the “men of no property” who provided the only consistent and reliable members of the United Irishmen societies and who had been and would remain the only consistent revolutionary force in Irish history. The Irish bourgeoisie, the middle classes and the Irish “establishment” followed the defeat of 1798 by more and more willingly bowing the knee to their masters more and more openly assisting the repression of the social movements of the Irish masses in the cities and on the land.

The 1798 defeat was followed in 1801 by the passing of an Act of Union bridging Ireland directly under the rule of Westminster. Thereafter the struggle for independence was sharply divided in form according to class interest. By independence the propertied classes meant simply repeal of the Union so that economic exploitation would continue, but with an Irish face. At no stage were these interests prepared to lead a struggle even for such independence. To have done so would have entailed mobilizing the property-less class, the peasantry and the seeds of the proletariat, and the well-to-do were motivated more by fear of these classes than by the irritation they suffered through foreign domination. Whenever the middle classes elbowed themselves into positions of leadership in any movement purporting to oppose the foreign rule of their country, it was only to separate the “national” demands for independence from the social conditions and social objectives from which they took root. Ultimately their role was to betray that movement.

For the peasants and, as they developed, the working class, independence meant more than the lifting of the chains of foreign rule. It was seen as the breaking of the bonds of social exploitation. From the lower levels of society, because of their oppression, came the only truly dynamic and revolutionary force to fight for national independence. During the nineteenth century the issue of the land provided the focal point of Irish struggle. But by their very nature the movements of these peasants tended to be sporadic and difficult to organize. Peasants exist on small plots of land. Physically they live apart from their fellow beings. Their mode of existence leans them towards individual terror rather than collective action. Without some external reservoir of support and leadership, movements of the peasantry have a tendency to be spontaneous outbursts of individual activity. By contrast industrial workers stand for eight hours every day beside their fellow workers, endure the same conditions in the factories, earn broadly the same wage, live in similar circumstances. Their very condition of existence presses them towards collective and united action. Common misery teaches the virtue of solidarity.

While workers can rely on their own class for strength, peasants seek the leadership of other classes. The country always follows the town. For the Irish masses on the land the real task as the nineteenth century opened was to find a social group among the urban population from who they could obtain leadership. There was no shortage of middle-class politicians who were quite prepared to accelerate their political careers by involving themselves to a degree in popular agitation. Into such a category would fall “leaders” of this period like “the Liberator” Daniel O’Connell. In the mysterious legends which sometimes pass as the official versions of Irish history, O’Connell lives on as the champion of the people who led them to Catholic emancipation and to within a breath of independence. Researchers do not have to dig too deep to uncover the true attitudes of this man of the establishment to the social aspirations of the Irish people.

O’Connell’s contempt for the real revolutionary struggle was demonstrated in 1803. It was in this year that Robert Emmett led a rising with little support except in the solidly working-class districts of Dublin. “The Liberator”, caring little for liberty at this time, turned out on sentry duty for Major Sirr, the officer in charge of the crown forces. This was neither the first nor the last time the true colours of O’Connell came out. After his huge success in a by-election in Clare in 1829 he took sides on all key issues of the day at Westminster. In 1832 he opposed the introduction of the poor law for Ireland. In 1836 he voted for a “Regulations of Factory” Bill, which exempted children of 12-13 from the Eight-Hour Day Act of 1833. It is said he sold his vote for £700.

O’Connell did lead the agitation for the repeal of the Act of Union in the 1830s and 1840s. He led it so far and no further. After a series of “monster meetings” he called for an enormous protest at Clontarf in 1843. The meeting was banned and the “bluff” was called. To go ahead meant a physical challenge to the establishment. O’Connell cancelled the meeting and with this one action deflated absolutely his entire campaign. As the United Irishmen leader, Henry Joy McCracken, just before his death in 1798, had commented with the insight of prophecy: “The rich always betray the poor.”

At this stage the repeal of the Act of Union could only have been achieved by a revolutionary and physical struggle. The British ruling class would not have granted it peacefully. What caused O’Connell and his like to draw back at a certain point was the impenetrable force field of their own class interests. Consciously or unconsciously the peasantry were striving to abolish landlordism and possess the soil. The middle class and the representatives of the Irish bourgeoisie baulked at the prospect. Even more abjectly they fell into the laps of British capital.

With no possibility of leadership coming from the middle classes, those at the head of the land agitation increasingly leaned towards links with the workers. And the absence of any developed working class in Ireland led them to seek to foster links with the British workers. Through the Young Irelanders and the Fenians to the Land League agitation in the 1870s, the leadership of this revolt became increasingly plebeian in outlook. Karl Marx, in founding the First International Workingmen’s Association, chose to develop links with the Fenians, at the same time criticizing their terroristic methods. Later Michael Davitt, the leader of the Land League, consciously sought to all his involvement with the growing labour movement.

The absence of a developed proletariat in the Irish cities swung the gaze of these movements to Britain. The last decades of the nineteenth and the first of this century changed this. In Belfast, Cork, Dublin and elsewhere the Irish working class began to develop their own organizations, industrial and then political. A new class, capable of taking the leadership of the national struggle, drawing behind it the tenants and all the downtrodden, was formed. Nothing could be the same again. The only real fight for liberation thereafter was the fight of the workers supported by the poor of the land. James Connolly, a pioneer of the labour movement in terms of both organization and of ideas, drew the appropriate conclusion.

Connolly, with his clear understanding that “only the working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland”, was echoing the theory of permanent revolution put forward by Trotsky. During the first years of this century Trotsky explained that, in a less developed country, the basic tasks of the bourgeois revolution, because of the inability of the weak native bourgeoisie to carry these through, fall to the working class. The workers, by taking power into their own hands, could achieve such ends as the distribution of the land to the peasants, tasks which the bourgeoisie proved incapable of fulfilling. But the working class would not stop there. They could also carry out their own historic goals, taking control of the economy and carrying through the socialist revolution.

Trotsky’s theory brilliantly predicted the course of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the works of Connolly, because he was capable of drawing identical conclusions to those of Trotsky, there is contained a clear forewarning of the consequences of the struggle for independence falling into the hands of the middle class. Connolly’s entire lifetime of struggle within the labour movement was largely devoted to an attempt to press this movement to draw the lessons of Irish history and place itself at the head of the national struggle. In so doing Connolly was not advocating that the movement forsake its own objectives. Rather, just as Trotsky explained in relation to Russia and elsewhere, Connolly argued that the objectives of the socialist revolution and those of national freedom were completely interwound. Only a few weeks before his death in 1916, he boldly stated his objectives:

“We are out for Ireland and for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressmen – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a nation can be reared.” (Workers’ Republic, April 8, 1916.)

The property-owning classes have been incapable of pursuing the fight against national domination in Ireland. In particular, since the defeat of the 1798 rebellion, this has been an unmistakable fact of Irish history. The involvement of these classes in any aspect of the national struggle has always been with the objective and the effect of dissolving the social basis and amputating the social demands of that struggle.

Invariably the effect of any dilution of the social aspect of the national question has led to a weakening of that struggle and a strengthening of the hand of British imperialism. The tactic of “divide and rule”, of setting Catholic against Protestant, has again and again been used in Ireland. But history shows, not once but repeatedly, that the oppressed masses are capable of overcoming religious divisions and withstanding the attempts of the exploiters to set them apart. Unity of the oppressed has always been possible on the basis of opposition to oppression. The United Irishmen drew support of all the downtrodden layers of society, Catholic and Protestant, precisely because these people saw it as a movement for social change. Again during the nineteenth century, the bolder the social appeal of those involved in the land agitation, the more striking the results they achieved in terms of the unity of Catholic and Protestant. Thus the land war of Davitt and the Land League received support from the Catholics of the South as well as from the poorer sections of the Protestant tenants in the North. The development of labour in opposition to the industrial slavery imposed on the workers of Belfast and Dublin represented the highest ever form of unity against social oppression.

In the hands of those who could press to the forefront the social issues of the day, the national struggle in Ireland was always capable of drawing the broadest support across the religious barrier between the poor. As in 1798, the attempts by the rulers to wield the club of religious bigotry could be faced and answered.

But the opposite too! On every occasion when the pressure of the upper circles of Irish society has succeeded in jettisoning the social issues from the platforms of those advocating national freedom, the struggle has been stamped with a sectional and ultimately a sectarian character. The way has been paved for the British ruling class to successfully intrude the weapon of sectarianism.

These were the essential lessons which the Irish labour movement needed to learn as it developed during the first decades of this century. The middle and upper classes had left the national struggle in shreds before deserting to the camp of the enemy. Economic interest always overcame “historic” and “patriotic” sentiment. It was left to the workers to prevent a sham and divisive struggle for notional independence. The task of drawing upon the experience of the past and of uniting the people, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, fell to the working class.

This is the background to the stormy events of the two decades which preceded the division of the country in 1920-21. Through partition, imperialism carried the tactic of “divide and rule” further than ever before. They did so because the situation, particularly in the years 1918-21, posed the greatest dangers they had ever encountered in Ireland. These were years of revolutionary upheaval on an unprecedented scale. Strikes, even general strikes, land seizures, even the establishment of forms of soviets in certain areas, took place. At issue was not only the question of whether or not the capitalist system would survive. The purpose of partition was to disorient and check the movement of the working class. In this objective, and for reasons explained later, it was successful.

This pamphlet has been produced in order to explain the real reasons for partition. Its conclusion is that this evil could have been averted, but only on the basis of a movement of the working class to change society. Unfortunately the leaders of Irish labour failed to digest the conclusions from Irish history which Connolly had so clearly presented before them. Above all, in the years after 1916, when Connolly was dead, they handed the struggle against national domination to a group of middle-class nationalists. With the words “Labour must wait” these nationalists emulated their predecessors and ditched the driving social motivation of the revolt. The result was a movement for independence which the bosses were capable of restraining within sectarian bounds. Irish labour, the mightiest force in Irish society if only it could be harnessed to a fighting program and leadership, was relegated to a back seat.

The Irish working class could have averted partition. More than this, only the Irish working class could have done so. If the demands of labour for a socialist Ireland and for international working-class solidarity had been to the forefront, the efforts of British imperialism to sow division could have been thwarted. This is the fundamental conclusion which stands out from every aspect of the period covered in this pamphlet.

Likewise, if the labour movement alone was capable of preventing partition, only the labour movement can overcome it today. If, at the beginning of the century, when the working class were first attempting to find their feet as a social force, they alone were capable of successfully opposing imperialism, how much more so today when the workers, in terms of numbers and specific social weight, are now the predominant force in Irish society.

Partition created a sectarian statelet in the North, maintained in existence through enormous subventions from Britain and based on the perpetration of sectarian division. In the South there emerged a country with formal independence but in which the domination by British and foreign capital has been maintained. There is today no way forward for either part of the country on the basis of capitalism.

Yet the idea has been projected in some quarters, even some on the “left”, that the objectives of their struggle should be to reunify the country on a capitalist basis and only then proceed to the establishment of socialism.

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. Between 1918 and 1921 the nationalists of Sinn Fein argued that first there must be independence and then, in the context of “freedom”, the struggle for socialism could proceed “if necessary”! Today’s notion of first “reunification” and then socialism is an even more heinous version of this same policy which had such disastrous consequences sixty years ago.

Those who argue for such a strategy have learned nothing from Irish history, let alone from the history of the working class internationally. They have failed, more than sixty years after his death, to appreciate the most basic of the teachings of Connolly. They have failed to realize the significance of the Marxist theory of “Permanent Revolution” or to see how this was borne out by the action of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in 1917.

To separate class issues from the key aspect of the national question which remains to be solved in Ireland, that is the reunification of the country, has an even worse effect today than in the past. Those who advocate such a thing do not stand in the tradition of Tone, Emmet, Davitt or Connolly. They must take their place in the shadows of Grattan, Flood, the “foreign-aid men” of 1798, O’Connell, Griffith and De Valera.

As in the past, the owners of property have today no interest in the national struggle, that is the question of reunification of the country. Neither of the capitalist parties in the South, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, has either the stomach or the desire to rule the North. Politicians such as Haughey and Blaney, who occasionally deliver some bombastic sermon on this question, invariably do so solely to divert the attention of the Southern working class from their economic problems.

Equally the right wing Nationalist parties in the North, into which category can now be put the SDLP, have neither any strategy nor any intention of conducting a real fight against partition. Nor does the apparently more “radical” nationalism of Sinn Fein offer any way forward.

The basis of Sinn Fein’s position is that partition must be ended before the working class can be united and therefore before the social and class questions can be resolved. When the camouflage of “socialist sounding phrases” are taken away, Sinn Fein’s arguments amount to nothing more than a repetition of De Valera’s disastrous message of 1918 – “Labour must wait”. In the last analysis, no different from the SDLP and every other shade of nationalism, they advocate the utopian pipe dream of capitalist reunification.

For the working class, reunification poses no attraction on a capitalist basis. Unity of the capitalist North with the capitalist South is unity of the slums of Belfast with those of Dublin and of the dole queues which in the country as a whole contain almost 300,000 workers. Above all, to the Protestants of the North, the idea of a capitalist united Ireland is repellent. Their fear of being submerged in a poverty-stricken Republic, in which they would become the discriminated against minority, remains today as it did during the days of Carson. They would resist such a proposal and resist it with force if necessary.

During the 1960s British imperialists, because of their changed interests, above all their penetration of the Southern economy, raised the possibility of a move towards the reunification of the country. They quickly found that the sectarianism which they had generated in the past refused to self-destruct. Imperialism, despite its desire to have the Irish question resolved in this manner, has been forced to retreat. Today the ending of partition has been pushed to the back of the minds of the ruling class by the realities of the situation. The masters of the capitalist system have been made to realize that capitalist reunification is ruled out.

So too should those other forces who advance this dream. During the War of independence the methods of guerilla struggle adopted by the IRA proved incapable of defeating the forces of imperialism. Failing to learn from this, the Provisional IRA and others have conducted a campaign for more than a decade, based on similar methods but in a less favourable situation in every sense. But quite apart from their false methods of struggle the belief of the Provisional leaders that the country can be united other than on the basis of socialism is a utopian illusion.

In reality they, and others who pursue a similar strategy, are playing with the prospect of a sectarian civil war. This would result, not in reunification, but most likely in a repartition of the country through the creation of a wholly Protestant enclave in a reduced area of what is now Northern Ireland. If Connolly could warn the labour movement in 1914 of the disastrous consequences of partition, Marxists today are correct in warning against the horrendous consequences of such a strategy. Not reunification but an Israeli-type situation with an entrenched statelet surrounded by refugee camps and displaced persons who could not be integrated into the shattered economy of the Southern state – this could be the catastrophic result. Despite the setback caused by the Anglo-Irish agreement, this is still the least likely development.

In the North the potential for a mighty class movement drawing together Protestant and Catholic workers has been demonstrated many times over, most particularly during the 1982 Health workers strike and in the campaigns of support which were organized. Such movements challenge the non-party political stand of the right wing trade union leaders. The demand for the creation of a political party, based on the trade unions, which could represent the working class is now taking on flesh.

In the South the working class has shown its determination and its power many times in recent years, in the 1979 Post Office strike, in the massive demonstrations over PAYE, in the occupation of Ranks flour mill, the Clondalkin paper mill and in other struggles. As in the North this industrial might has not been reflected politically.

The reunification of Ireland means first the development of such struggles and linking together in common action of the working class and their organizations, North and South. It means the unity of workers in the North, the unity of Northern workers with their Southern brothers and sisters on the basis of a joint struggle for socialism. As a part of the socialist transformation of society the border can be removed. On the basis of Connolly’s writings, and of his actual participation as a Marxist in the labour movement, it can be said without a doubt that this is the conclusion he would have drawn had he lived to experience the implementation of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, the subsequent treaty with Sinn Fein in the South and the events which followed.

The Irish Labour Party has been held back by the participation of its right wing and careerist leaders in a series of disastrous coalitions with the right wing capitalist party Fine Gael. Labour’s rank and file together with the rank and file of the trade unions are moving against coalition. The working class will break the Labour Party free of the shackles of coalitionism, will move Labour towards its independent socialist roots and the Party will then be poised for explosive growth.

The program of Marxism in Ireland today finds its roots in the ideas of Connolly no less than in the program and experience of the greatest Marxists of the past, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Connolly opposed the idea of labour entering a coalition with its enemies. Those who insist that labour in the South must fight independently on socialist policies stand in his tradition. Connolly proposed that the Irish trade unions establish a Labour Party. Those who advocate that the trade unions in the North must immediately form such a party stand with him on this question. Connolly fought for the ownership of the economy to be placed in the hands of the working class. He struggled to achieve decent working conditions, decent wages, and shorter hours for all workers. Today the Marxist program of Militant, for a 35-hour week, for a minimum wage tied to the cost of living, for guaranteed work for all, and for the nationalization of the banks, finance houses and major monopolies is simply his program placed in the context of present conditions. Connolly fought to mobilize the working class to remove all aspects of imperialism, military and economic, from Ireland. He also struggles resolutely against sectarianism and urged action on the part of the organizations of the working class to eliminate this evil. By assisting in the formation of the Irish Citizen Army in 1913, and in maintaining thereafter this body in existence as the armed wing of the trade-union movement, he helped construct the first army of the working class in Europe. His ideas are today maintained and developed through the demand for the withdrawal of the British troops from the North and their replacement by a trade union defence force capable of defending all workers against sectarian attack. Above all, and it is the purpose of this pamphlet to underscore this point, Connolly’s tradition is maintained by the labour movement adopting a socialist approach to the question of partition, placing in its banner the objective of the unity in struggle of the working class throughout Ireland and the establishment of a socialist united Ireland.

August 1980

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Last updated: 31.12.2010