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Eamonn McCann


The protestant working class

(July 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 89, July/August 1986, pp. 19–21.
Originally published in Socialist Worker (Ireland).
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THERE IS no subject in Irish politics about which more nonsense is spoken than the Protestant working class.

Most political groups – including all the major political parties – are either frightened or flummoxed by it. Usually both.

The reason for the fear and confusion is fairly simple. It is that any calm analysis of why Protestant workers cling to Orange bigotry leads to conclusions which most political organisations can’t stomach.

We have to begin by facing the obvious fact that sectarian bigotry is still widespread and strong among a majority of Protestant workers. This was clear from the results of the 15 by-elections held in the North in January.

Right-wing Loyalists increased their support by thousands and won 78.6 percent of the poll. Moreover, support was strongest in solid working-class areas like East Belfast.

This hard fact can’t be wished away by claims that Protestant workers were ‘confused’ or ‘misled’ or by reference to the lack of credible alternative candidates in some constituencies. More Protestant workers went out to vote for Orange bigots than in 1983.

This fact was reinforced by the relative success of the strike against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in February. Of course, there was widespread intimidation and, of course, the RUC did little to counter the intimidation. But if there had been sizeable hostility to the strike in the power stations, the shipyard, the engineering factories and so forth, the intimidation would not have worked. The strike call was answered because, while many Protestant workers might not have been enthusiastic about it, neither did it go against the grain. And what they were striking about was the apparent involvement of ‘representatives’ of the Catholics in running Northern Ireland.

The strike was about keeping Catholics out. And ‘keeping Catholics out’ means preserving Protestant privilege.

Orange bigotry is based on Protestant privilege today as surely as it was when the Orange Order was founded in 1795. Then, the privilege had to do with access to the best land on the most favourable terms.

Today it has to do with jobs, houses, social prestige and access to political influence.

The fact that, from the Protestant workers’ point of view, the privilege is pretty small, matters not at all. When tuppence-halfpenny is looking down on tuppence, the halfpenny difference can assume an importance out of all proportion to its actual size.

The existence of Protestant privilege in the North down through the years is not seriously denied by anyone any more.

Nor is it seriously denied that from the inception of the Northern state in 1921 the preservation of Protestant privilege became official state policy.

The quotes from Unionist prime ministers are so well known they have become catch-phrases: ‘A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’ (Craigavon); ‘If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work ... we are traitors to Ulster’ (Brookeborough); and so on.

This policy of anti-Catholic bigotry was enforced by means of repression and murder, often carried out by the official forces of the state (the RUC and B-specials), occasionally carried out by unofficial armed gangs and merely tolerated by the state.

These facts are now acknowledged on all sides. What, very often, is not acknowledged is that Protestant privilege is still a fact of life in the North.

For example, in January the Belfast magazine Fortnight published a survey of unemployed trends in the North by Cambridge economist Bob Rowthorn. Using the 1971 and 1981 census returns and statistics released since, Rowthorn traced the way patterns of unemployment affected the Protestant and Catholic workers. What he discovered was very simple.

Average male unemployment had increased massively between ‘71 and ‘85 (from 10.3 to 26.4 percent). Within this, Protestant unemployment went up from 6.6 to an estimated 18–20 percent. But for Catholics the rise was from 17.3 to 38 40 percent. (The figures for female unemployment, published separately, showed the same pattern: average rise, 4.7 to 9.5; Protestant rise, 3.6 to 11 12; Catholic rise, 7.0 to 18 19.)

In other words, while Protestant workers had become worse off over the 14-year period, Catholics had become worse off at a faster rate. The sectarian gap had not narrowed. It had become wider. And there is no reason to suppose that this trend is not continuing.

Despite the Fair Employment Act and the existence of a Fair Employment Agency, Catholics are still finding it impossible to get jobs in the shipyard, in Shorts aircraft factory, in the major engineering firms and so on.

And the same pattern – of a sectarian gap – emerges from Cookstown, Antrim, Derry, Armagh, Lisburn, Enniskillen ... everywhere. Concluded Rowthorn: ‘The disparity between Catholics and Protestants will remain gigantic for the foreseeable future.’

Thus when Protestant workers march today under the slogan: ‘What we have we hold’, they are talking about something very real. And insofar as they have lost anything in the last two decades (in terms of direct control over the police and unchecked power in the councils) they are demanding: ‘What we used to have we want back’.

This fundamental fact is scarcely mentioned at all in most coverage of the North, which strives to suggest that the Protestant masses are just deluded by demented demagogues, that if only the real situation was explained to them clearly they wouldn’t follow the Orange drum anymore.

It’s understandable that this mindless nonsense should be peddled by Garrett FitzGerald and his hangers on in the media: the right-wing nationalist tradition they represent has made evading the reality of the North into an art form.

But the same line – that there’s no real basis for Orange bigotry at all – is also pushed enthusiastically by self-styled socialists like the Labour Party left and the Workers Party (the old Official Sinn Fein/IRA). Indeed the Workers Party goes further and suggests that Orange bigotry is merely an emotional reaction to militant Republicanism.

Unless reality is faced it cannot be changed. Unless we deal with the real basis of Protestant workers’ sectarianism we cannot devise a strategy for detaching Protestant workers from it.

When they attach themselves to sectarian ideas Protestant workers are entering an alliance with Protestant bosses. They are declaring that the religion they share with middle and upper class Protestants is more important than the status of worker which they share with people of a different religion. The Orange Order and its associated bodies have traditionally provided the mechanism by which this integration took place.

Former Unionist Prime Minister Brian Faulkner summed it up perfectly when he told a Twelfth of July demonstration in 1963:

‘Many a company director has marched with his lodge today shoulder to shoulder with wage earners. This is a healthy state of affairs.’

What the wage earners got out of this was a feeling of involvement in the dominant group in society, plus a guarantee of a place towards the front of the queue for whatever jobs, houses etc. might be going.

What the company director class got out of it was a feeling of security that the wage earners wouldn’t be marching against them. (Faulkner completed the quote by declaring that: ‘This is the right ground on which to base the soundest of industrial relations.’)

Orange sectarianism has always played this role in working class politics, binding the workers to the boss class, while simultaneously cutting off the possibility of an alliance between protestant workers and others of the same class.

Over and over again it has proved very useful to capitalism in the North. The history of the North is studded with examples of working class militancy being divided and destroyed by appeals from Orange bosses to Orange workers to desert the class battlefield and come back into the fold.

The fragile working class unity established on each of these occasions did not last long. But at least it happened. And on each occasion it happened in the course of working class struggle.

Indeed – and this is a point of overwhelming importance for socialists – the only occasions on which sizeable numbers of working class Protestants have even temporarily deserted Orangeism have been occasions when they were involved in class struggles.

When they struggle to better themselves as workers, Protestants – like Catholics, Muslims and Hindus – must break with their bosses and associate themselves with other workers.

When they struggle to better themselves as Protestants, they must break with other workers and associate themselves with their bosses.

Of course, there are many Protestant workers – mostly active trade unionists – who have not been swept away by the sectarian rhetoric and who in their unions and workplaces have stood firm courageously against the pressure pushing them backwards towards sectarianism.

However, these are in the minority and for the time being right-wing bigots are making all the running. Thus the reaction of many left-wingers to write the Protestant working class off as hopelessly lost to bigotry and political filth.

This is very stupid.

It is obvious that Protestant workers can – and sooner or later will – reject Loyalism and make common cause with their Catholic fellow-workers. This is obvious because it has happened frequently in the past – including the very recent past – and for reasons that will inevitably recur.

Any socialist seriously interested in overcoming the sectarian divisions and establishing working class unity must look closely at the occasions when this came about, and examine why it came about and the reasons it was so short-lived when it did.

It happened in 1907, when James Larkin led Protestant and Catholic dockers and transport workers in a strike which paralysed Belfast.

It happened in 1919 when 40,000 shipyard and engineering workers came out in Belfast for the 48-hour week in a mighty struggle which only ended when British troops were sent in to smash the strike. Most of the strikers were Protestant – but a majority of the strike committee were Catholic. The strike lasted weeks, was absolutely solid and the workers fought together against British Army scabs.

It happened in 1932 when thousands of unemployed workers engaged on ‘relief’ work struck for higher payments. The Falls and the Shankill joined and from the interconnecting streets fought off RUC baton charges.

It happened in 1944 when Belfast was gripped by an unofficial general strike involving more than 25,000 workers after mainly-Protestant shipyard workers defied wartime anti-strike laws and came out over pay.

It happened in 1982 when thousands of Catholic and Protestant health service workers across the North stood shoulder-to-shoulder on picket lines against Thatcher’s cuts and for a wage rise.

These particular incidents are well-known to anyone with a smattering of Irish history. But there are hundreds of other examples of smaller-scale industrial action which make the same point – that, year in and year out, Protestant workers do break from sectarian loyalist ideas and ally themselves instead with Catholic workers to better the conditions of both.

Of course on each occasion the unity has been short-lived. But the fact that it happened at all – and has happened so frequently – shows clearly where we have to start from.

We have to start from the simple and glaringly obvious fact that it is when, and only when, they are involved in class struggle that Protestant workers see Catholic workers as their natural allies and Protestant bosses as their natural enemies.

There are no examples of sizeable numbers of Protestant workers in this century rejecting Loyalism in any other circumstances. Only class politics has ever successfully challenged Loyalism for Protestant workers’ allegiance.

The reason the moments of class unity have always been brief is that unity on the economic issues has never developed seriously into unity on the political issues. On each of the occasions mentioned above, the workers began to split along religious lines as soon as the ‘national question’ was raised. And in the aftermath of working class struggles it was always raised by the bosses for precisely that reason.

Once ‘Home Rule’, and later ‘The Border’, entered into it, the Protestant workers lapsed back into Loyalism and began to identify themselves again with people of the same religion rather than people of the same class.

One of the major reasons for that has been that the official leaders of the labour movement have time and time again failed to face up to the political questions.

The North’s official trade union leaders, for example, have argued at every stage that economic issues must be kept separate from politics, that to introduce politics is ‘divisive’.

The result has always been that when division came about anyway they have had no answer, no basis on which to combat the divisive politics which are inherent in the structure and the very nature of the Northern state.

This was true after 1919, when Craigavon, preparing for the establishment of the State, whipped up Loyalist emotions in the Belfast shipyards and split the workers asunder.

It was true after the unity of 1932 when Basil Brooke (later Lord Brookborough) did likewise and triggered the bloody sectarian riots of the mid-30s. Etc., etc. It is still true today.

On no occasion has the official workers’ leadership been able to enter into political battle against those out to split the unity which workers themselves had shown could be established. The most dramatic example was the pitiable attempt of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) to organise a back-to-work march during the 1974 anti-power sharing strike. About 200 turned up – under British army protection.

Throughout the current troubles – like all previous troubles – Northern leaders of the ICTU have denounced anyone who tried to argue that no section of the working class should support a State based on sectarianism. That’s ‘divisive’, they said.

The result has been that when the question of supporting the Northern State is raised – as it has been raised now by Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux over the Hillsborough Agreement – the ICTU is in no position to say anything.

It is the official policy of the ICTU in the North to say nothing about the border, or anything relating to the border. The policy is – no policy.

Small wonder then that many of the workers who were solid together in the health service strikes a short time ago are now deeply divided. Their own union leadership had told them that the picket line unity had no political implications whatever.

At the same time, the major tradition which does consistently put the issue of the sectarian nature of the Northern State right on the very top of the agenda – the Republican Movement – doesn’t acknowledge the importance of workers’ unity on the economic issues at all.

While the Provos generally express support for workers struggling for better wages or to save jobs, or whatever, they deny that such struggles have any immediate relevance to the fight against the State.

The Republican line is that class politics must take a back seat until such time as the sectarian State is destroyed. So the united Ireland which they are offering as an alternative to the North is, clearly, a capitalist united Ireland.

Once that is created, so the Republicans say, then the struggle for a socialist Ireland can begin. There is nothing whatever in this to attract Protestant workers, even Protestant workers who are class-conscious.

The key to winning Protestant workers away from Loyalism and to socialism is to build an organisation which is based on the day-to-day struggles of the working class and which also faces up squarely to the necessity to smash the Northern State.

An organisation which only fights on the economic front might gather Protestant working class support on a shallow basis and in the short term, but it will be broken when it comes into collision – as inevitably it will – with the realities of Northern politics.

An organisation which fights only to destroy the sectarian State, but which doesn’t base itself on working class struggle, will remain confined within the Catholic community and will never make contact with the consciousness of Protestant workers, even when they are directly engaged in fighting their own bosses.

To the sectarian State which offers Protestant workers marginal privileges in relation to jobs and houses it is necessary to counterpose the idea of a socialist Ireland in which the rule of the capitalist class – Orange, Green and true-blue Brit – has been ended. A State which represents the culmination of all the struggles of Irish workers, Catholic and Protestant, North and South.

It is possible to make a link between that vision for the future and Protestant workers in the present. Protestant workers – simply because they are workers – are thrown into conflict with their bosses time and time again. They are not mindless automatons, nor are they helpless victims of some mysterious virus. To analyse the situation as if they were is a perverse form of anti-Protestant bigotry.

Moreover, it is to ignore the fact that the strength of Loyalist ideology in the North has a great deal to do precisely with the disastrous failure of both the social democratic and Republican ideologies to get to grips and grapple at close quarters with it for the allegiance of Protestant workers.

Only revolutionary socialism – Marxism – which links the question of the existence of the Northern State to the question of what class is to rule in Ireland has any hope of success.

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