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Troubled Times

Peter Hadden

Troubled Times

Section Two
Forever Divided?

Chapter 9
Two Nations?


Those who argue that there are two nations in Ireland, whether they say a Protestant nation or a Northern nation made up of Protestants and Catholics, look into the mists of time to prove their case. As we have seen, their argument that the existence of two nations, formed through history, brought about partition, is quite false.

However there is a follow on argument which needs to be answered. Did partition and the prolonged existence of two states so amplify the divisions which had been there, that two separate nations eventually did develop?

It is certainly the case that the formation of new states can lead directly to the emergence of new nations. The Jews in Palestine at the time of the British Protectorate were a distinct religious community, but not a nation. However when Israel was formed, and then with the influx of Jews from Europe and North Africa, a national consciousness quite different from the consciousness which had existed among Jews in the area before, was forged. It is now possible to describe the Jewish population of Israel as belonging to an Israeli nation.

Partition did cut across those tendencies to assimilation which had been so pronounced in 1919. The fact of two states following separate lines of development surviving over decades, across generations, could not but reinforce divisions.

Greater division – yes. But two nations – this is a different matter. So much rubbish has been written on this especially by those who have argued this idea, that it is difficult to clear away the theoretical fog which surrounds the issue. In fact anyone who sets out to do so, but who lacks the essential tools of a marxist analysis, is virtually certain to end up quite lost.

Formal logic, the stuff of much philosophy and the approach of too many political scientists and historians, teaches us to divide all that we see around us into rigid fixed categories. We are taught to identify things by placing them into their appropriate mental box; structures of a certain sort are houses, of a different type are flats, rocks are of certain types, animals belong to species and people are of nations. Each category is viewed as distinct, equal to itself and quite separate and apart from all others.

Marxist philosophy, dialectical materialism to give it its scientific title, sees the world differently. It views things not as fixed and eternal, but as ever changing. It begins from the basic premise that everything which exists does so in a continuous and unending process of change. All things come into being and pass away. They do not appear from nothing but come from something else and ultimately become something else again.

Houses are constructed from various materials which only in their proper place make them identifiable as houses. Once in existence they are subject to an unending process of decay. Even the best DIY expert can only delay and offset, but not counter the erosion of nature and the decay of materials. The seemingly eternal rock formations around us were once of molten form and have been changed by wind, rain, glaciation. Even the most durable become sediment and change into another form. Species too evolve and alter, new species develop as old ones disappear. And nations are the product of a particular time. They are a general bracket which we put around people, but none, not even the most settled are fully homogeneous. None will endure forever. Under capitalism in this the period of its death agony there is a tendency to fragmentation, as internal differences grow – under socialism nations and nationalism would be redefined and have an entirely different meaning from the present.

In criticising formal logic marxism does not reject all its categories as completely invalid. If we went to the opposite extreme and viewed the world as simply a melting pot of change without definition we would be unable to make sense of anything around us. We not only maintain the categories of formal logic – the division of society into classes is one example – we give them added meaning by understanding their limitations.

No two things are the same, nor does any thing stay the same, but so long as the differences or changes are within certain limits we can comfortably place them under a single heading. Although a car is produced to one specification, no two models coming off the production line are exactly identical. But so long as the differences are slight they are not important for all practical purposes and the cars can be grouped together as of a particular make or model. On the road each car faces different conditions, different treatment and each one becomes progressively less like the rest. Still so long as the differences are within limits of tolerance the original name and model are still appropriate to identify them.

From quantity to quality

It is when small quantitative changes added together produce something quite different, when a thing is no longer essentially the same as what it was, that old definitions become outmoded and new ones have to be applied. A well treated car may still be on the road while one produced alongside it has been scrapped and turned into a cube of compressed metal. It is now neither the original make nor model, the difference is of quality, not just of quantity.

Marxism deals therefore not with fixed final results, but with processes, with the constant process of change to which everything from inorganic matter to social phenomena is subject to.

The manner in which this change takes place is also important. It is not that a thing starts at one point and marches in an undeterred straight line until it becomes something else. No. Changes take place in a more erratic form as a result of the dynamic interplay of conflicting pressures.

H20 at one point of extreme temperature forms as ice. At another point it becomes steam. In between it is water. In its state as water it can never be at an exactly constant temperature. It unceasingly becomes either hotter or colder always moving either towards the state of ice or that of steam. Yet we know from the water around us that it can remain in this liquid state for a lengthy period, so long as a form of equilibrium exists in which changes in one direction are cancelled out by changes in the other.

The answer to the question whether or not two Irish nations, or an Irish and a British nation in Ireland, developed after partition, can only be answered by posing another question – did the changes brought about after partition amount to a qualitative difference or not?

From the moment the new states became consolidated there were tendencies towards separation, but as with the heating and cooling of water in the earth’s environment, there were also countervailing tendencies.

On a practical day to day basis the people of the Southern state quite quickly adjusted themselves to its existence. Their immediate and most pressing concerns were with improving their lot within it – the North was a long way off politically if not geographically. The fact that new generations have come and gone, living their lives with the reality of partition has tended to reinforce this separation.

On the other hand there is a deeply felt national feeling, a sense that an injustice was committed through partition, and a desire for ultimate reunification. This is an anti-imperialist sentiment which has never quite died away. It has arisen at different times in various forms, re-firing passions about the North which otherwise over time had cooled. It took a particularly nationalist form in border areas during the 1950s when Sinn Fein was temporarily on the rise North and South. In 1966, with the celebrations of the Easter Rising it found a more radical expression. Concern for the plight of Northern Catholics moved tens of thousands in the South into action of some form during the August 1969 pogroms, after Bloody Sunday and again during the hunger strikes.

For those living in the North the same factors of a separate government, separate laws, separate economic development, a very largely separate news media etc., tended to set them apart from the South. A sense of a Northern identity was certainly heightened, especially among those living away from the border areas.

But this tendency which might theoretically have led over a period to a separate national identity has been countered by opposite tendencies. The new state quite deliberately excluded Catholics. It garnished itself in the trappings of Protestantism. Its first Prime Minister, Craig, later Lord Craigavon, boasted that “we have a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. [46] The Catholic minority, treated as second class citizens, never gave their allegiance to this state and were never fully integrated within it. Whatever sense they felt of Northerness, of a common fate with Protestants, was challenged by their feeling that progress for them would have to go hand in hand with the dismantling of the state.

Working class unity

Among the advanced sections of the working class the sense that their movement was an all-Ireland movement was maintained. In periods of ebb of the class struggle and especially when trade union and Labour leaders, North and South, courted unionism and nationalism respectively, this all-Ireland sense was reduced. When the class struggle was on the upbeat, when class issues came to the fore, it tended to be reinforced, very often through grass roots solidarity.

The most significant organisational expression of this cross border unity was the fact that the trade union movement remained united on an all-Ireland basis. There were serious attempts by bigots on both sides to break this unity, as with the Fianna Fail promoted split off of the Congress of Irish Unions in the 1940s, but it survived.

Politically the movement has in reality been divided since partition. Although the ITUC and LP remained nominally a single industrial and political organisation, in practice its all-Ireland political arm never grew. The Irish Labour Party and the NILP were separate parties from the time of the latter’s foundation in 1924.

Even they did not escape the tendency to unity whenever class questions came to the fore. Both parties grew and shifted to the left during the 1960s. As they did so their leaders came under pressure from their ranks and from trade unionists to move closer together. The 1967 NILP conference adopted a call for a Council of Labour to bring both parties together. In 1968 the motion was implemented and the Council of Labour established with the NILP, the Irish Labour Party, the small Northern Republican Labour Party of Gerry Fitt, all participating. Among its aims was the following:

“to promote socialist principles and policies in both parts of Ireland and to secure the return of socialist governments in Ireland, North and South.” [47]

Tendencies towards the emergence of a Protestant, as opposed to a Northern nation have likewise been rivalled by counter tendencies. Once in power the Unionists did their utmost to cultivate a Protestant ethos and identity. Protestants were British, distinguished by their ‘British way of life’ and in this were unlike their Irish Catholic neighbours. While Catholics in their separate church-run schools learned Irish history with a nationalist and church influenced slant, Protestants were taught to recite the kings and queens of England. They learned nothing of their own country, nothing of 1798, nothing of partition and nothing about this state they were growing up in.

There is no doubt that the fact of a state which leaned on and promoted one section of the community and discriminated against the other did widen the division between Protestant and Catholics.

Against this was the reality that, whatever the discrimination, the state could not deliver a secure future to the Protestant working class. It was born in recession, after 1929 much of its industry was faced with collapse, the thirties were a decade of hunger and poverty for Protestant workers as well as Catholics, and even during the ‘boom’ years after the war unemployment stayed stubbornly at twice the UK average. Housing in Protestant working class areas was in the same deplorable condition as in Catholic areas, the huge inner city ghettos of Belfast stayed this way until after the collapse of the Stormont parliament in 1972.

Despite the defeat of partition, the powerful tendency to class unity quickly re-established itself. New struggles began to take place from the mid 1920s. In 1932 the strike by Outdoor Relief workers left an indelible mark of class unity in this supposedly Protestant state. It was followed by many similar occasions when Protestant and Catholic workers fought together against the employers and against the government

That aspect of the difference between the two communities which partition accentuated was primarily political, not cultural or national. The Unionist movement had never been a national movement – it had never asked for nor sought a state. There were certain cultural differences between Protestant and Catholic which the Unionist leadership attempted to widen. They make it their business to be on the platforms of all the main Orange parades. The Orange marches in which some Protestants participated repelled Catholics, just as Hibernian parades in which some Catholics took part repelled Protestants.

Two cultures?

For all their efforts – unionists and nationalists – could not elevate this into the existence of two distinct cultures. When it comes to broader aspects of life-style and culture there have always been far greater similarities than differences. Even the music played by Orange and green bands is essentially the same.

What partition did do was widen the political polarisation and make it more difficult to overcome. The two communities were more rigidly divided than before on the questions for or against the existence of the state, for the link with Britain, or for a link with the Southern state.

Even this division has never been uniform or complete. Political unity of Catholic and Protestant workers has been possible as and when class politics have risen to challenge those based on religion. Within a few years of the founding of the state the newly formed Northern Ireland Labour Party began to eat into the Unionist vote. It scored spectacular successes in successive elections in 1945. Between 1958, when it returned four MPs to Stormont, and the late 1960s, it offered a serious challenge to Unionists and Nationalists and threatened to emerge as the most powerful political force in the state.

Partition meant that a single nation state was not built and could not be built on the basis of capitalism. There were two states but still only one nation, albeit that within this nation there were pronounced differences, aggravated by history between North and South and between Catholic and Protestant.

Further it set in motion tendencies and counter tendencies each drawing society in an opposite direction. Were the tendency to division to dominate over a period the likely result would be two nations. But this qualitative transformation would only be possible on the back of big events and would be a change which would not come about unnoticed.

In the case of Israel it was the extreme circumstances of the formation of the state which created a clearly visible Israeli national consciousness. In the background of its formation stood the holocaust and the profound psychological effect this mass murder had on Jews generally and on those who formed the European exodus to Israel in particular.

The state itself arose out of civil war in Palestine, the expulsion of the Arabs, expropriation of their lands, the destruction of their villages. To survive it had to defeat the surrounding Arab states in war. Its Zionist rulers went much further than the Unionists could go in moulding a new national ethos and culture and were much more successful in doing so. They invented – or re-invented – a language which all citizens had to learn from scratch. They created the symbols not just of statehood but of nationhood and developed a national psyche. Today those who wish to take out Israeli citizenship must go through an intensive residential induction course in which they not only learn the Hebrew language but have to undergo indoctrination in the values of the state, must learn its history and are expected to adopt its customs.

What exists there today bears no resemblance to the Palestine of the Ottoman empire or the British protectorate. Fundamentally altered in terms of culture, language, as well as politics and geography, there is no question but that a nation made up of the Jewish people of Israel has emerged.

Were there to be events of a similar magnitude in Ireland the result would be the creation of a new nation based on the Protestants. This would become possible for example, on the basis of civil war, repartition and the emergence of a new Protestant state in the north east.

On the other hand should the tendencies towards working class unity become dominant the way would be opened to the ending of partition and the establishment of a socialist Ireland in which all differences, whether regional, cultural or religious would be respected.

Partition did not draw society past either of these poles. The Ireland which emerged was short of being a nation state but some way short of being two nations either.


46. Michael Farrell, The Orange State, Pluto Press 1976, p. 92.

47. Constitution of the Council of Labour (author’s papers).

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Last updated: 4.1.2011