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Troubled Times

Peter Hadden

Troubled Times

Section Two
Forever Divided?

Chapter 8
Two Sectarian States


Following partition the new state in the North consolidated itself using coercion and repression and with the assistance of generous amounts of finance and weaponry from Britain.

The first elections to the new Northern Ireland parliament were held in 1921. Labour candidates, standing in Belfast, found their meetings and campaign activities attacked and disrupted by right wing loyalists from organisations like the UESA. In the general sectarian atmosphere which prevailed, the 1920 local election successes were but a memory and they polled badly.

The Unionists won an outright majority and set about ensuring that this would always be the way it would be. They strengthened their grip through a policy of blatant discrimination and by the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries.

Some of the new generation of dissident or ‘fringe’ Unionists decry this as a ‘mistake’ and a lost opportunity. David Irvine of the Progressive Unionists, for example, has argued that Carson warned Unionists that they would be judged on how well they treated the minority.

In truth the early Unionist policy cannot be explained away as just a mistake. Gerrymandering was necessary to take councils such as Derry, out of nationalist hands. Discrimination was necessary to make Protestant workers feel that they would receive preferential treatment and so encourage them to throw their lot in with their unionist employers rather than with Catholic workers. The whole rotten system was necessary in order to keep workers divided, and to ensure that politics always equalled religion. This was no ‘normal’ state. Should the Unionist lose their majority, the state itself would be threatened. Their ‘ill treatment’ of the minority was not an error but was their only way of guaranteeing themselves a permanent majority in the new parliament.

That there was no mass uprising by Catholics against their inclusion in the new state, not even in border counties like Fermanagh and Tyrone, indicates the scale of the defeat inflicted by partition on both the social and the national struggles. The majority of Catholics felt they had no option but to accept things as they were for the time being, and to hope that the outcome of the ongoing war in the South would see a change. Then, left abandoned by the signing of the Treaty, their only hope rested with the Boundary Commission. After this body delivered a unionist verdict, they were left to face the reality that partition was firmly in place and that they were going to remain on the ‘British’ side of the border.

The history of northern nationalism, whether of its military or its constitutional arms, has been, ever since, a history of failure to come up with any strategy or any means to undo this situation.

In the southern area it took civil war between the conservative wing of the republican movement, who supported the Treaty, and the more militant anti-Treaty wing, before the new state could firmly establish itself.

Following the defeat of the anti-Treatyites, the subsiding after 1923 of the revolutionary wave of workers’ struggles begun in 1918 allowed the most reactionary elements of the national movement, together with the big ranchers and businessmen to consolidate their grip. Like their Northern counterparts they used the tools of coercion and repression to construct a sectarian state.

Southern Unionists were nearly all from the old Protestant ascendancy. In order to protect their property and their social status, they quickly accommodated themselves to the new state. This fact does nothing to disguise its sectarian character. The 1937 constitution gave formal expression to the Catholic sectarianism which had been there from the outset. It recognised various churches but gave special recognition to the Catholic church. It embraced Catholic teachings, both on social questions and on the upholding of private property.

A subservient class

Partition gave a comprehensive expression to the failure of the weak and subservient Irish capitalist class to carve out a unified national territory for itself and build an Irish nation state. In as much as an Irish capitalist class developed, it was now as the ruling class of the Southern state. As a class it remained weak and subservient to the dominating power of British capitalism.

When De Valera’s Fianna Fail party came to power in 1932 it did so with the support of small farmers, of the petty bourgeoisie and of a section of the working class. Reflecting the pressure of these layers it tried to defy British economic power by raising tariffs. The hope was that Irish capitalism might develop behind this protective shield. This ‘economic war’, begun in 1932, had to be abandoned in failure in 1938 when the additional tariffs imposed in 1932 were scrapped.

By the late 1950s Irish capitalism was forced to a policy of the scrapping of all tariffs as the only way it could enjoy some of the benefits of the post war boom. Economic development henceforth was to be on the basis of free trade – with grants and incentives to foreign multinationals to entice them to Ireland.

In December 1965 an Anglo/Irish Free Trade Agreement was signed. All British tariffs on Irish goods were to be scrapped and Irish tariffs on British goods were to be phased out over a ten year period. British dominance was thereby reinforced.

If, more recently, there has been a change in this situation it has been due to the decline of British capitalism, the entry of both Britain and Ireland into the EEC, and the penetration and increased domination by European, US and other foreign capital over the Southern economy. Ireland remains a tenth rate capitalist state, with a ruling class who, although they have grown in self-confidence, are in reality just as toothless as ever.

Economic weakness and lack of political ambition are two sides of the same coin. The weak Southern ruling class have lacked both the will and the desire to reunite the country and attempt to build a single national capitalist economy. Their consciousness is of what they are – the ruling elite in the 26 county state. In the decades since partition they have been almost completely cut off from the North economically as well as politically.

Today only 6% of the Republic’s total exports are to Northern Ireland. Only 8% of the North’s exports go South. Most of this trade, in both directions, is not industrial but agricultural, the export of live animals, food, fertilizer, etc.

Facing difficulty enough retaining their grip over the Southern population who at least have some adherence to the state, they have no wish to add in the unstable mix of one million hostile Protestants and a Northern Catholic working class now well tutored in the politics of resistance.

Articles 2 & 3

Articles 2 & 3 of the 1937 constitution, which appear to stake out a territorial claim over the North, have to be seen in this light. What these two Articles really do is provide constitutionally for the fact of partition.

They pay lip service to reunification while allowing Irish governments, ‘in the meantime’ to legislate only for the South. As far as Irish capitalism is concerned, for ‘in the meantime’ read ‘forever’. The aspiration for unity contained in these Articles has as much meaning for them as the socialist objectives of Clause Four of the British Labour Party constitution had to the reformist leaderships of that party.

Partition and the subsequent Treaty with the South were a satisfactory outcome for British imperialism. It was in their interests thereafter to preserve this status quo. Their hold over the North was a useful counterweight to the moves by De Valera to go beyond the original terms of the Treaty. The North also proved of military importance during the Second World War. Its heavy industry was turned to war production. Its ports, especially Derry, and its airfields were vital in the Atlantic war against the German U-boats.

It was only during the 1950s, more than three decades after partition, that British interests began to change. One by one the factors which led them to introduce and then to maintain partition disappeared.

This period saw an unprecedented and unstoppable revolt which spread from country to country and continent to continent across the colonial world. It became impossible for the imperialist countries to continue to rule their colonies in the old way. They were forced to retreat, ceding power to local rulers, mostly drawn from the independence movements.

Bit by bit the British Empire was dismantled. India won its independence in 1947. The late ’50s and early 1960s saw the wave of de-colonialisation spread to British possessions in Africa. The biggest of these, Nigeria, gained its independence in 1960. It was in that year that Tory Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, made his famous Winds of Change speech in which he argued that there was no choice but to relinquish direct control over those colonies which remained.

In the South a republic was declared in 1948. Yet far from lessening Britain’s dominant influence, the subsequent moves away from any form of protectionism increased its importance as a market for British goods and as a destination for British investment. The 1965 Free Trade Agreement reinforced this and by 1969 the Irish Republic had become the fifth biggest market for British companies.

Meanwhile the old manufacturing base in the North, suffering from decades of under investment, was in decline. Even in the context of the post war world economic expansion, the North experienced severe recession after 1958. Between that year and 1964, one third of its linen plants closed. 40% of shipbuilding jobs were also lost between 1960-64. The area was of lessening economic significance to British capitalism whose sights were beginning to shift to the new opportunities for profits south of the border.

Those military strategic factors, so vital in 1920, and to an extent during the second world war, were no longer of importance. Whether or not the Royal Navy would have access to Irish ports was of scant military significance in this post-Hiroshima age, where even the British fleet contained long range Polaris nuclear submarines. In any case Britain was no longer a major military power, more of a bit player acting on the side of the US in the new cold war era.

Relative stability

Overall this was a time of unprecedented economic expansion and of relative stability for the major capitalist powers. The threat of social revolution, of Bolshevism, which had preoccupied the capitalists after 1917, was no longer an imminent danger in the advanced capitalist world.

The tactic of divide and rule was superfluous to the immediate requirements of imperialism in Ireland. What they sought were conditions of political stability to allow them to increase their economic penetration of the island as a whole. Partition was fast becoming an anachronism, serving no particular purpose but rather providing an unwanted source of potential instability.

Something along the lines of the offer made and then dropped by Lloyd George during the 1921 Treaty negotiations, was increasingly the preferred option of the ruling class – but for very different reasons.

Understanding that the Northern state, into which they had deliberately placed a one third Catholic minority who did not and would not accept its permanent existence, was an explosive mix, they preferred to wash their hands of the problem. They favoured transferring ultimate sovereignty over the North to an all-Ireland parliament, possibly still leaving the two regional parliaments in place.

The 1960s presented the capitalists with the most favourable opportunity they were likely to get to implement some such solution and lay the national problem to rest. There was economic upswing and political stability. Even Ireland North and South benefited to some extent from the boom in the form of new inward investment by foreign multinationals.

In 1963 Terence O’Neill, representing a more moderate face of Unionism, became Prime Minister of the North. O’Neill recognised the economic sense of greater co-operation with the South. His Dail counterpart, Sean Lemass, head of Fianna Fail, was of like mind. Twice in 1965 they broke historic ground by meeting together, first in Belfast, then Dublin.

Yet, under these the most favourable circumstances that would arise, nothing was done, the border remained, the national problem was left unsolved. The British ruling class encouraged every measure of North-South co-operation. The Times praised O’Neill for meeting Lemass, describing him as one of “a new generation of Ulstermen concerned with the challenge of economic necessities and free from the urge to fight old battles over again”. [45]

Beyond such encouragement they took no concrete steps to fulfil their real ambition which was to withdraw. They did not even apply pressure on the Unionists in government at Stormont to end the blatant discrimination against the Catholic minority.

That they did nothing was because they feared that Protestant resistance to change would lead to civil war, a civil war that would have disastrous consequences for British capitalism, and would end with a worse problem than before it started.

Civil war would immediately threaten British property and trade in Ireland. It would overspill to Liverpool, Glasgow, London and other centres of large Irish population in Britain. Across the world it would be Britain which would bear the blame. Boycotts of British goods, especially in the United States, would likely result.

And in the end it would produce only more instability. The outcome would probably be the repartition of Ireland, leaving a smaller and exclusively Protestant state in the north east. Ethnic cleansing, Bosnia style, would mean a flood of Catholic refugees across the border. The weak Southern state would not be able to assimilate this new influx, whose eyes would be turned, like the Palestinians, to regaining the land and homes they had lost – all in all a recipe for further upheaval and violence right on Britain’s doorstep.

For these reasons the British ruling class could not proceed to implement the changes they would have liked. They retained their preference for withdrawal but contented themselves with making do with the status quo for the time being at least.

In short, partition, once consolidated, created a problem which could not be solved on a capitalist basis. To nationalists it is a simple matter. It created a sectarian state which must be dismantled before progress can be made. This was the theoretical stance upon which republicans began their military struggle in the early 1970s. It has been thoroughly discredited by all that followed.

The real problem is that partition created not one but two sectarian states. The Northern state was, justifiably, unacceptable on a permanent basis to those Catholics who lived within it. But the idea of being merged with, or as they saw it, submerged into the Southern state was also unacceptable, and with just as much justification, to the Protestants.

In this is the real core of the national problem and the real explanation of why there cannot be a capitalist answer. So long as the choice is a capitalist one – either two poverty ridden states or their merger into one – so long would conflict and violence be inevitable. This was the problem as it presented itself to, and confounded, the strategists of capital in the 1960s. Despite the changes wrought by the Troubles it remains the core of the national problem today.

That there can be no capitalist solution – this is the starting point of Militant Labour’s programme. We reject all capitalist solutions – the status quo, Ulster independence, integration with Britain or capitalist reunification, as various roads to ruin.

We do not share the view of nationalists, left republicans and some socialist groups, that because partition was a crime, we have to support every capitalist step to reunification as ‘progressive’. This position has been one factor leading the Communist Party towards a split and an early grave over the issue.

This line of argument ignores the fact that the problem is not of one but of two sectarian states. In working out our approach we have to weigh things concretely, measuring precisely their effects. There is no road to a capitalist united Ireland and it is not the role of socialists to sow illusions that one can be found. Were events to move in this direction the result would be civil war and a disastrous setback for the working class.

This is why we say we are just as opposed to moves in this direction as we are to the other capitalist options, all of which, either in the short or the long term also point to civil war. Those ‘socialists’ who take a different view need surgery to have the cataracts formed by overexposure to romanticised nationalist ideas removed from their eyes.


45. Times, 15 January 1966.

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Last updated: 4.1.2011