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Chris Gray &
John Palmer

Ireland and the British Left

(April 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April/May 1969, pp.22-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

1. Introduction

For some years now the defenders of British Imperialism have asserted that the ‘Irish question’ – the problem of Ireland’s relationship with Britain – was essentially solved by the 1921 Treaty, which divided Ireland into two halves and created, on the One hand, an ostensibly independent ‘Free State’ comprising twenty six counties, and, on the other, ‘Northern Ireland’ comprising the remaining six counties, an integral part of the United Kingdom possessing its own local autonomy. The civil rights demonstrations in the Six Counties which took place in the latter half of 1968, and in particular the October 5th demonstration in Derry have once again called this analysis into question. This year the situation has been highlighted by the Belfast-Derry Civil Rights March, marked by appalling brutality on the part of Paisley’s supporters, abetted by the police, who proceeded to vent their feeling upon the Catholic working-class districts of Derry; the rerouting of another civil rights march in the predominantly Catholic town of Newry at the behest of the new Six Counties Home Secretary, Captain William Long, has once again served to add fuel to the flames in a deliberate attempt to perpetuate the division of the Six Counties’ working class along religious lines. This mixture of concessions and coercion has served to remind the people of Britain of the existence of a police state in Northern Ireland, a police state which was set up for the express purpose of keeping Northern Ireland as part and parcel of the United Kingdom. The ‘Irish question’ is back in British politics.

Its return poses a challenge to the British Left; it can either continue to ignore the situation, as it has virtually done up to now, or it can actively intervene on the side of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland pressuring the British Labour Government to refuse all aid to the undemocratic Orange Tory regime. As members of a British socialist organization, our concern is not to point the line of march for the Irish movement, but instead to get its goals understood on this side of the water, in defiance of the ignorance and prejudice which the ruling classes of both Ireland and England desire to perpetuate.

James Connolly, the great Irish Marxist, declared once that it was no surprise to him that the British worker declined to help the Irish working class fight its battles when his own battles in Britain required so much time and energy. We have no wish to minimise the struggles ahead for British workers, but we believe that the attitude to which Connolly drew attention is a luxury the British labour movement can no long afford. More than this: there is now a discernible chain reaction at work in the political unheavals of the past twelve months (Paris – Prague – Mexico – Chicago – Derry). As the former Attorney-general of Northern Ireland has said, the wind of change has become a veritable hurricane. Given the close links between Britain and Ireland, events there inevitably carry lessons for the movement here and repercussions are felt in British politics. We ourselves can learn from the militancy and determination of the Irish labour movement.

2. The Treaty Settlement, 1921

To understand the background to the recent events in Derry and elsewhere in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to consider the origins of the Six County statelet and its subsequent history, and to explain these it is necessary to consider the balance of forces in Ireland at the time of signing of the Treaty in 1921. There were in fact four independent political forces operating in Ireland in the period leading up to the Treaty. These were

  1. British Imperialism
  2. Orange Unionism
  3. the (Southern) Irish National Bourgeoisie
  4. the Irish working class.

British Imperialism

Following the Cromwellian and Williamite wars of the seventeenth century the ownership of land in Ireland passed almost entirely into the hands of a class of Protestant landlords, who were the main supporters of the ‘English connexion’ from this time onwards. This left a mass of Irish-speaking peasants to work the land. The peasantry was carefully excluded from ‘public life’ by means of the notorious Penal Laws, a series of clauses inserted in the Treaty of Limerick in 1697, which barred Catholics – i.e. the vast majority of the population – from voting and belonging to the so-called ‘liberal professions’ (law, medicine etc.) and above all from ownership of land. The Protestant landlords, hand in glove with English landed and mercantile capitalism, were also intimately connected with British court and government circles in general.

All this was of considerable benefit to English capitalism, which was thus able to use its own state machine to frustrate the growth of a rival commercial capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition to supporting a system of property relations in Ireland which restricted the home market, England banned development of Irish industry directly by laws passed at Westminster. In 1666 an embargo was placed on the export of Irish cattle to England; the various navigation acts restricted the growth of Irish shipping, and in 1699 an act was passed which brought about the destruction of the Irish wool trade. In addition, of course, Ireland was forced to admit English manufactures at low rates of duty. The position was consolidated for British Imperialism by the Act of Union of 1800.

By the early years of the present century, however, the situation had changed once again. As Erich Strauss observes:

The exploitation of Ireland by Great Britain took different forms in different ages: in the eighteenth century it consisted mainly in the extraction of rents and raw materials: under the Union in the extraction of rents, labour and taxes. In 1913 all these sources of material exploitation had dried up or dwindled, and calculated in terms of hard cash Ireland had, indeed, become a liability for the British Empire.’ [1]

British Imperialism had indeed been shifting its ground vis-a-vis Ireland for some time before this, on account of the agrarian problem there and the political difficulties which this caused. The fact that there existed still in the late nineteenth century a mass of discontented and dispossessed peasants was a source of real danger for British Imperialism, as there was always the possibility of an alliance between the rising Irish Catholic bourgeoisie and the countryside, a revolutionary combination similar to that which nearly overthrew British rule in Ireland in the great rebellion of 1798. To meet this threat statesmen such as Gladstone and Balfour proceeded to try and take the sting out of the land agitation by giving land to the peasants bit by bit, a tactic which reached its zenith in the Wyndham Land Act of 1904. This reduced the Irish land problem from East European to Western European proportions: it did not dispose of it entirely, but it ceased to have the same explosive potentialities as the land problem in Russia or Rumania. Meanwhile some bargain had to be struck with the rising national bourgeoisie: Gladstone and the Liberals by and large favoured Home Rule; the Tories were opposed. The Liberal view triumphed in 1906 and by the outbreak of World War I the Home Rule Bill was ready to be passed as soon as a convenient moment occurred in the form of the cessation of the European conflict. British Imperialism was thus prepared to reach a compromise with the Irish national movement.

Orange Unionism

Serious opposition to Home Rule, however, found its home in the Tory party [2] and was supported by a section of Irish capitalists whose base was the industrial area of North-east Ulster around Belfast. The Northern capitalists are the key to the whole problem, whose peculiar politics derive from a set of specific ideological, political and economic conditions. To understand these, we must remember that the area was ‘planted’ by the English government, which brought in numbers of Scots Protestant settlers in the early seventeenth century. The results of this have been well described by James Connolly:

‘the Protestant elements of Ireland were, in the main, a plantation of strangers upon the soil from which the owners had been dispossessed by force. The economic dispossession was, perforce, accompanied by a political and social outlawry. Hence every attempt of the dispossessed to attain citizenship, to emerge from their state of outlawry, was easily represented as a tentative step towards reversing the plantation and towards replanting the Catholic and dispossessing the Protestant.

Imagine this state of matters persisting for over 200 years and one realizes at once that the planted population – the Protestants – were bound to acquire insensibly a hatred of political reform, and to look upon every effort of the Catholic to achieve political recognition as an insidious move towards the expulsion of Protestants. Then the Protestant always saw that the kings and aristocrats of England and Ireland were opposed by the people whom he most feared and from recognising that it was but an easy step to regard his cause as identical with theirs. They had a common enemy, and he began to teach his children that they had a common cause, and common ideals [3]

So we find Catholic peasant secret societies in the eighteenth century paralleled – and opposed by – a Protestant peasant secret society (the Peep-o’-Day Boys’).

The plantation of Ulster was the only real and permanent colonization of Irish territory from Great Britain: hence it was in this area alone that Protestantism took root among the common people. This fact becomes important to the light of the subsequent economic development of Ireland.

Because the authorities in charge of the plantation wished to attract settlers from Britain it was necessary to offer relatively easy terms and long leases – in direct contrast to the rest of the country, where the Catholic peasantry were mercilessly exploited. Hence there came into being the so-called ‘Ulster custom’, which gave tenants a degree of security not enjoyed elsewhere in Ireland, plus the right to sell their interest in the farm on leaving. The linen trade was also established in Ulster in the eighteenth century, and linen yarn was exported to Manchester to be woven there. This trade afforded the tenants some additional income. Also, as was to be expected in such conditions, farming in Ulster was technically of a higher standard than in the other provinces. There thus arose in this area of Ireland a native bourgeoisie with economic interests centred on linen manufacture – the one Irish industry not deliberately suppressed by British Imperialism – and later branching out into shipbuilding in the nineteenth century, plus a number of subsidiary occupations. The whole industrial complex was firmly tied in with the British market (which, of course, included the Empire) and the capitalists who ran it had interests diametrically opposed to those of the rising national bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. Home Rule was economic disaster for them because it would have meant the imposition of protective tariffs on British goods entering Ireland, with the prospect of a tariff war as a result; this would have meant exchanging the vast market of the British Empire for a monopoly position in a miserably small island home market – and even that subject to taxation from a Home Rule government intent on building up industry elsewhere in Ireland. No wonder the capitalists of North-east Ulster fought ferociously in defence of their economic interests.

They had a number of strong cards in their hand, including first of all the support of the Tory party, home of British imperialist diehards and those sections of British capitalism opposed to the creation of rival industry in Ireland. They had the support of all those privileged sections of the British ruling class who were threatened by the Liberal Government; they had the support of many army officers (the Curragh mutiny). Above all they had a ready-made mass ideology in the shape of militant Protestantism, with its Messiah King Billy and its Glorious Twelfth of July mythology. And they succeeded. They forced the Liberal Government to introduce into its Home Rule Bill a clause excluding the Unionist counties of Ulster. Then they forced the suspension of the Home Rule Bill for the duration of the war. They ran large quantities of German arms into Larne and created a military force, the Ulster Volunteers, ready to fight to the death against all comers.

The Southern Bourgeoisie

The third political force in the arena of Irish politics at this time was what we may call the ‘National Bourgeoisie’, i.e. those sections of the Irish urban employing classes who favoured Home Rule, plus their supporters in the countryside. At the end of the eighteenth century, following the bourgeois revolutions in France and America, a similar revolution was on the cards in Ireland, and very nearly succeeded in 1798. It was crushed, however, and the militant republicanism of Tone [4] gave way to the measured gradualism of O’Connell, [5] which secured emancipation for Catholics in 1829. Matters took another turn for the better in the period following the famine, when members of this rising Catholic bourgeoisie were able to buy up bankrupt Protestant estates. In this period also appeared the rural moneylender or ‘Gombeenman’, natural ally of the urban Catholic middle class. The republican tradition survived with the Young Irelanders [6] and the Fenians [7] but the revolutionary attempts organized by these latter in 1848 and 1867 failed, and the leadership of the movement remained constitutional. At no stage in the nineteenth century did the national bourgeoisie move far enough left en masse to forge an effective alliance with the still numerous peasant battalions, and as time wore on these battalions were whittled away by the operation of the land acts already referred to. The one politician who seemed likely to grasp the nettle – Charles Stewart Parnell – fell foul of his own ideology as a result of his liaison with Mrs O’Shea [8] and the movement fell into gombeen and clerical hands. But these worthies were no more able to deliver the goods until British Imperialism, in the shape of Prime Minister Asquith, decided that the time was ripe for the completion of the transfer of power in Ireland from the remnants of the old landlord class to the new bourgeoisie, who would, of course, continue to govern Ireland by and large in the interests of British Imperialism.

The Irish Working Class

Opposed to all the above was the Irish working class, like the national bourgeoisie a relatively late arrival on the field of battle, but with great fighting spirit for all that. Initially a staunch friend of Fenianism (leaving aside those Ulster sections under the sway of the militant Protestant ideology), this class produced its own party in 1896, the Irish Socialist Republican Party, led by James Connolly. Those workers who supported Connolly were in favour of independence from British Imperialism, but they challenged the right of the gombeen nationalists and southern capitalists to govern Ireland. Their watchword was ‘the Workers’ Republic’ and their programme essentially one of nationalisation under workers’ control. The ISRP suffered from splits and declined as a political force as a result, but in 1907 Jim Larkin appeared in Belfast and started on his career as a trade union organizer, which led to the mushrooming of Irish unions, above all the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which led the fight against the Dublin employers haaded by William Martin Murphy in the 1913 transport strike. Out of this strike, and the police brutality which accompanied it, arose the first workers’ army in Europe in this century, the Irish Citizen Army. Connolly was executed in the 1916 Rising, and his successors were far less able men, but the Irish working class had already shown its capabilities, and all three of its opponents were united in the desire to find a solution to the Irish problem which would keep political power out of its hands.

Mention must be made here of James Connolly’s writings on the national struggle and the Irish working class. Connolly took up a position essentially similar to that of Lenin, namely that the Irish working class, the only class whose interests were diametrically opposed to those of British Imperialism, must not stand aside from the natural revolutionary movement, but, on the contrary, take the lead in it and turn it in the direction of the socialist revolution. Connolly declared that:

‘If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.

‘England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and. individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs ...’ [9]

This observation has proved true. On the question of partition Connolly also pointed out the dangers involved for the Irish working class, and predicted that:

‘Such a scheme as that agreed to ... the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.’ [10]

This too, alas, has proved only too true. Holding such opinions it is not surprising that Connolly became involved in a controversy with William Walker, of the Belfast ILP, who opposed the national movement and held that socialism could be achieved in Ireland within the framework of the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that in this controversy Connolly was in the right: the seeds of proletarian republican socialism can develop out of the national liberation movement. Orangeism on the other hand is an ideological expression of imperialism, with no revolutionary potential (compare the ideology of the ‘pied noir‘ whites in Algeria). The logic of ‘Walkerism’ is visible in the modern Northern Ireland Labour Party leadership, enmeshed in the traditions of bankrupt Social Democracy.

The Treaty Settlement

The official Irish nationalist party led by John Redmond was discredited as a result of the failure to get Home Rule implemented, plus the effect of the First World War in Ireland, with inflation, conscription of Irishmen a threatening possibility and the hospitals crammed with British war wounded while Dublin workers and their wives had to wait in the queue. As a result a new bourgeois national party ‘Sinn Féin’ (Ourselves), founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, rose to prominence and won a sweeping electoral victory in 1918. It then carried out its policy of withdrawing from Westminster and setting up an independent parliament (Dáil Eireann). Guerilla warfare broke out, but this was concentrated largely in Munster [11] and though very costly to keep under control was not yet at the stage where the creation of a large Irish field army was likely. Accordingly a truce was agreed, and on December 6th 1921 a treaty was signed providing for the setting up of the so-called ‘Irish Free State’, with the right to impose protective tariffs, but excluding north-east Ulster, the final boundary to be determined by a commission. This settlement was resisted by a section of the aspiring national bourgeoisie headed by Eamon De Valera, [12] and civil war broke out in 1922 with the British supplying arms to the Free State. But the bourgeois republican leadership proved unable to lead the struggle, the newly-formed Irish Labour Party stood aloof, the youthful Irish Communist party was ineffective, and despite the emergence of some short-lived rural Soviets the radical possibilities of the straggle never developed.

3.The Six Counties

The Boundary Commission met in the autumn of 1924 to fix the border ‘in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographical conditions’, as stipulated in Article 12 of the Treaty. It should have met earlier, but the Orange capitalists refused to nominate a representative (the original idea was to have one from each separate statelet plus a chairman appointed by the British Government). The problem was solved by Britain appointing a representative for the Orangemen; this was J.R. Fisher, former editor of the Northern Whig, a hard-line Orangeman. The chairman of the Commission was Judge Feetham of the South African Supreme Court.

It became clear that there was a contradiction between the ‘wishes of the inhabitants’ and the ‘economic and geographical conditions’ obtaining. By the former reckoning at least two counties (Tyrone and Fermanagh) would have joined the Free State by the vote of the predominantly Catholic population in those areas. Parts of the Counties of Londonderry, Down and Armagh also contained Catholic majorities which, it could be argued, deserved inclusion in the Free State. However, even with four counties out of six the Orange enclave would not have been viable economically: there would not have been sufficient agricultural hinterland. On the other hand the inclusion of all nine Ulster counties (ie the addition of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan) would have swamped the Protestant population and led to the creation of a 32-County Free State covering the whole of Ireland. So, by another grand old British ‘compromise’ the boundary as fixed at the Truce was agreed upon by Judge Feetham and Mr Fisher, and this agreement imposed on the southern government, which signed it on December 3rd 1925. Hence the present Six Counties.

This partition agreement, which incorporated a large number of Irish Catholics inside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland [13] was but the culmination of a series of actions against the Catholics in the North from 1920 onwards. The southern guerilla struggle was answered by anti-Catholic pogroms:

‘On July 21st prominent Unionists addressed the Protestant workers in the Belfast shipyards, who were in a majority of six to one. The speakers called for “a show of revolvers”, called upon the Protestants to drive the “Fenians” out, and turned a thousand hate-intoxicated men loose on their Catholic fellow-workers to fling them into the channel or beat them with ruthless savagery out of the yard.

During the nights and days that followed armed Orangemen carried the attack into the Catholic quarters of the city.

Bombs and petrol, rifles and revolvers were used. Catholics were driven out of their shops and houses, which were looted, then bombed or drenched with petrol and fired. Convents, churches and Catholic hostels were special objects of attack. The pogrom was imitated in Banbridge and other towns. It continued without cessation for five days and nights. Before it ended, seventeen men and women had been killed and about two hundred injured; hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of the property of Catholics had been wrecked. Hundreds of Catholic families had seen their houses and all that they possessed demolished. The men were threatened with death if they ventured to return to their work,’ [14]

The cornerstone, however, of the policy of the Orange capitalists was the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, which was designed to deal with me dangerous situation created by the presence of a large minority actively opposed to the very existence of the Six County regime as a state. Under this act the authorities have the following powers: they can

  1. Arrest without warrant;
  2. Imprison without charge or trial and deny recourse to habeas corpus or a court of law;
  3. Enter and search homes without warrant, and with force, at any hours of the day of night;
  4. Declare a curfew and prohibit meetings, assemblies (including fairs and markets) and processions;
  5. Permit punishment by flogging;
  6. Deny claim to a trial by jury;
  7. Arrest persons it is desired to examine as witnesses, forcibly detain them and compel them to answer questions, under penalties, even if answers may incriminate them. Such a person is guilty of an offence if he refuses to be sworn oranswer a question;
  8. Do any act involving interference with the rights of private property;
  9. Prevent access of relatives or legal advisers to a person imprisoned without trial;
  10. Prohibit the holding of an inquest after a prisoner’s death;
  11. Arrest a person who ‘by word of mouth’ spreads false report or makes false statements;
  12. Prohibit the circulation of any newspaper;
  13. Prohibit the possession of any film or gramophone record;
  14. Arrest a person who does anything ‘calculated to be prejudicial to the preservation of peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland and not specifically provided for in the regulations.’

In addition to the above legislation, which gives government and policy virtually unlimited powers, the Orange capitalists set about shaping the electoral system in the Six Counties to further their own political objectives. The Government of Ireland Act (1920) introduced proportional representation in Irish elections in order that British Imperialism could be sure that the Unionists in the south (landlord remnants and established capitalist elements who made a living by selling British goods to the natives) should have strong numerical representation. On October 19th, 1922, the Local Government Act was passed by Six County parliament at Stromont abolishing proportional representation for local elections. The next local elections were put back to May 1924, thus giving the Unionists time to tinker with the electoral boundaries. [15] In 1929 the same procedure was applied to elections at Stormont. For elections to Westminster United Kingdom electoral a electoral law applies, but for Stormont and local elections various archaic devices were retained as can be seen in the following table:

Westminster Electors, 1964



Stormont Electors


Adult Suffrage


University second vote


Business second vote




Local Government Electors


Resident and spouses


Business second vote


Company votes




In case the situation cannot be dealt with by the rules of the parliamentary game there is a further shot in the locker – the B-Specials. This force is the successor to the Ulster Volunteers, which were recognised in 1920 in preparation for partition.

Over the years this whole apparatus of counter-revolution has been used to keep the Catholic population from getting the upper hand and voting or forcing the Six Counties to joint the South. Parallel with this has been discrimination against Catholics in housing and employment. Housing discrimination by Unionist councils is well-known andwidespread: to quote only one recent example, Derry Housing Association’s proposed to build 450 houses in Pennyburn was turned down by the Corporation on the grounds that this would mean rehousing Catholics in a Protestant area [16] As regards employment, we have the noble example of Sir Basil Brooke (later Lord Brookeborough), who said ‘I am proud to say that I have never employed a Roman Catholic in any position on any of my estates’ and who urged ‘loyalists’ to discriminate in favour of ‘good Protestant lad and lassies’ because, he said, the vast majority of Roman Catholics were ‘disloyal’. He explained this by saying ‘Unless you act properly, before we know where we are, we shall find ourselves in the minority instead of in the majority’. [17] He need not have worried, because affairs are so well organized that the emigration rate among Catholics is six to ten times greater than that of Protestants. Umemployment also is higher in Catholic areas This flows from a conscious policy of allocating industries to Orange areas, rail closures, the siting of the new Ulster University at Coleraine as opposed to Derry, etc. And every year the Twelfth of July ceremonies underline the second-class status of the Catholic in his native country. Moreover, opposition to the Unionist government can easily be presented as opposition to the existance of the stage and dealt with by the Special Powers Act.

4.Winds of Change

All of a sudden the whole edifice seems on the point of collapse. Why is this; the answer lies partly in the changes that have been taking place over the years in the Six Counties, and partly as a result of changes in the attitudes of three of the major forces referred to at the beginning of this pamphlet – British Imperialism, ‘Green’ Capitalism, and Orange Capitalism. The Treaty settlement has become outmoded to some extent, and a re-alignment of interests has taken place, ushering in a new phase of Anglo-Irish relations.

Let us first of all deal with the fortunes of the Free State.

Failure of Green Capitalism

The Treaty gave the Free State the right to build up its own industry by means of protective tariffs, but the country was left with large sections of its economy dependent on the British market, and with its banking services also under the control of British Imperialism. The Free State was thus a neo-colony of Britain, despite the fact that it was itself a creditor country with some £200 million invested abroad by 1924. This amount of foreign investment was indicative of the higher return obtainable outside the country. Under these circumstances it proved impossible to create a capitalist industry; as was foreseen by James Connolly. [18]

The most concerted attempt to build an independent Irish capitalism was carried out by Eamon De Valera and his Fianna Fail [19] Party which rose to power in 1932 in the wake of the world slump and the distress of the small farmers, who were still being forced to pay land annuities to Britain as part of the land purchase measures introduced by British Imperialism in the nineteenth century and referred to above. Regulations were introduced whereby companies operating in the Twenty-six Counties were required to be under native capitalist control. A number of ‘state-sponsored bodies’ (ESB, Irish Sugar Co. etc.) were set up where they did not conflict with established manufacturing interests. But the programme registered only a limited success, and over the years the prospect of Green capitalism surviving in its minuscule home market decreased. The moment of truth arrived in 1958 when Sean Lemass, who had inaugurated the Control of Manufactures Acts as Minister for Industry and Commerce under De Valera, dismantled his own acts and embarked on a programme of attracting foreign capital. And the foreign capital arrived on easy terms from the government and the expectation of a docile labour force.

By this time the EEC was very much a going concern, and if Britain joined it was clear that the Twenty-six Counties would have to follow suit. For this still more capital was needed, plus a rationalization of existing firms. Accordingly a Free Trade Agreement was signed with Britain in 1965 opening hitherto protected sectors of the economy to competition from Britain.

All these developments have changed the attitude of the big battalions of British Capitalism towards the Southern regime. But there is a price to pay – the dismantling of the police state regime in the North. This is necessary to protect the political stability of the Southern regime, threatened as it is by the highest strike rate in Europe, plus the latent violence of industrial and agrarian struggles, plus the growth of the disturbingly radical southern Labour Party, plus, above all, the need to discipline somehow the southern Irish working class, which, given the sellers’ market for labour following the influx of foreign capital, has forged ahead economically as well as politically. In this situation there is the added danger that the Civil Rights movement in the North may fall into the hands of those emerging as the alternative in the south – those republicans moving towards working-class – (Marxist) – politics. All this points to the need for concessions from O’Neill as the policy most calculated to serve the needs of British Imperialism, bolstering up Lynch thereby, – also the Northern Green Tories. Wilson and his capitalist masters have less need now of the Orange capitalists, because of the good behaviour of the Green ones; while De Valera was in power there was always the chance that he might choose a radical solution to the Irish problem, and certainly he was not likely to surrender as much as Jack Lynch has to British interests. But Dev is now out of the way, Lynch is functioning as a good policeman for Britain, and there is therefore no need of a policeman in the North to watch him, as there was when the treaty was signed.

Enter Terence O’Neill

Changes have also taken place inside the Six Counties. The British Empire has tumbled down, Britain’s share of world trade has declined in relative terms compared with other advanced capitalist countries, and chill winds are blowing round a ‘little corner of a foreign land that is for ever England’. On the credit side for the Orange capitalists has been the growth of a Northern Catholic bourgeoisie since the Second World War (using war contracts as a beginning) and the continued paralysis of the opposition, which is split into numerous sections and parties all so far ineffective against the Unionists. But Northern Ireland’s traditional industries .are in decline, and some economic answer is required. Hence the O’Neill-Lemass talks on common economic problems which began in 1965, hardly two years after O’Neill became Six Counties premier in March 1963.

O’Neill then found himself faced with pressure from Wilson and from progressive opinion in England to grant some reforms. In principle he was ready to take this road, if only to stall Wilson until the return of a Tory government, but his very readiness to grant certain reforms means that he creates an expectation in the minds of the Catholic population that reforms will be granted. This raises the political temperature, and simultaneously alarms the fundamentalist Orange elements headed by the Rev. Ian Paisley. The problem is to grant enough reforms to satisfy Wilson without at the same time raising a demand for even greater reforms.

But, from the Unionist point of view, there is a still more ghastly prospect. Assuming that the pressure forces them to concede the demand for one man one vote (which in any case carries with it the danger of a split in the Unionist party to the gain of Messrs Paisley and Bunting, their extra-constitutional wing) they still cannot grant houses and jobs for all. Indeed the problems of Irish capitalism in areas like Derry also expose the inability of a Lynch regime to do anything for the unemployed there either. The plight of Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh is paralleled by the predicament of the small farmers of the Twenty-six Counties, especially in the Gaelic-speaking areas and the Atlantic fringe (Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry). [20] This is why the presence of Marxists in the Civil Rights Movement is so dangerous. Bourgeois solutions very quickly lose credibility, and the question of a socialist alternative is placed on the agenda. Coupled with this there is the danger of the emergence of a very dangerous combination for the Orange capitalists, a combination active in 1798, glimpsed in 1907 when Larkin was operating in Belfast, and now threatened by the ability of the Civil Rights Movement to break out of the Orange-and-Green straitjacket designed by Unionist propaganda to contain onslaughts on the regime from any quarter by branding all opposition as ‘disloyal’. This combination, this final spectre, is a united Protestant-Catholic revolutionary movement. The basis for it is not lacking, since Protestant workers also suffer from unemployment (textiles and shipbuilding) and are subject to the manipulations of Unionist local authorities, as for example in Derry, where slum clearance in Protestant areas carries the danger of upsetting the carefully gerrymandered arrangement of voters. This, then, is the ultimate time-bomb on which O’Neill and the rest of them are sitting, which explains why they need Doctor Paisley and Major Bunting to keep the Protestant workers faithful to the end. Similarly they need Messrs MacAteer and Austin Currie, the official Nationalist ‘Green Tories’, as a buffer against the militants on the Catholic side.

Derry [21]

Which brings us to the events of October 5th. Not only concessions, but coercion was necessary. Time is of the essence, and it is clear from what happened that the Six County authorities were determined at all costs to stop the steam rising too fast under the lid of the kettle, and were therefore prepared for a confrontation with the Civil Rights movement in Derry on October 5th in order to teach them that all talk of reforms was meant for Wilson’s ears only. It is probable that had the police succeeded that afternoon in batoning the demonstrators to a standstill they would then have gone up the Lecky Road and attacked the nationalist population in a further attempt to teach the ‘Fenians’ a lesson and baton down the political temperature. Unfortunately for them, they miscalculated: barricades and molotov cocktails in the Lecky Road put a stop to the scheme.


The steam blew the lid off the kettle, and O’Neill was forced to outline a number of concessions. In so doing he alienated his Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Craig, who may well be in favour of some sort of UDI operation (using the recently acquired armoured cars at the disposal of the B-specials). But such an operation is risky, as pre-1914 conditions in Britain do not now apply in 1969 and the Orange capitalists are much more isolated. Accordingly the concessions policy won.

What it involves is the abolition of the business vote [22], the appointment of an Ombudsman, the establishment of a points system/ for house allocation throughout the Six Counties, a special Commission (non-elected-appointed by the Unionists) for Derry which replaces existing local authorities in the city itself and surrounding rural areas. A thorough review of the local election system is promised for 1971.

It will be seen that this series of concessions falls short of the demand ‘One Man, One Vote’, which is the demand of the Civil Rights movement. Still less does it deal with the employment problem, where the next logical demand is ‘One Man, One Job’ (i.e. full employment for all) and an end to religious discrimination. The Ombudsman is obvious window-dressing, and the business vote is less important than formerly.

At the time of writing the ‘Christmas truce’ has come to an end, and we have had the Belfast-Derry march, the emergence once more (if only temporarily) of barricades in Derry, plus street committees attempting to police the Catholic area, plus the much-publicized ‘Radio Free Derry’, plus the Newry march. O’Neill has plainly shown that the present number of concessions mark the limit – for the present at any rate. There is talk of a change of tactics in the Civil Rights movement (more forms of passive resistance, etc.) Basically the same divisions remain within the movement, however.

On the one hand there are a group of what one might call ‘Reluctants’. These are the official Nationalist party, Green Tories, who participate in demonstrations only to prevent the movement falling into the hands of extremists. Then there are the Moderates, including the leaders of the NCP who want the full programme of reforms which is necessary but do not wish to antagonize O’Neill and risk civil war. Then there are the militants, small in number, who are prepared to challenge O’Neill all along the line, by violent means if necessary.

The big question is whether the movement can develop on the basis of working-class unity in a revolutionary socialist direction, whether, in short, some sort of transitional programme can be worked out which will carry the day against the present bourgeois leadership.

5. Tasks of British Socialists

Meanwhile, the task of British socialists, as Marxists and as internationalists, is clear: it is to demand the end of British interference in Irish affairs. In the case of Northern Ireland this means it is necessary to demand

  1. the withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland;
  2. no UK arms for police and B-Special thugs who are increasingly allied with Paisleyites;
  3. an end to the subsidies paid by the British Government to support the Orange Tory police state; and
  4. the right of the Irish people to national self-determination.

It is arguable that if these demands were successful the result would not necessarily be the socialist revolution, but we must make it clear that the right of self-determination is not conditional on the creation of a socialist republic. This is important because we are operating inside what is, historically, an oppressor nation, and in order to forge international ties between the British and Irish labour movements it is necessary that the British movement clear itself of any charge of Great British chauvinism (and this charge can be made with reference to the events of this century). We should bear in mind Lenin’s comments on the secession of Norway from Sweden in 1905. Lenin wrote

‘The close alliance of the Norwegian and Swedish workers, their complete fraternal class solidarity gained from the fact that the Swedish workers recognized the right of the Norwegians to secede. For this convinced the Norwegian workers that the Swedish workers were not infected with Swedish nationalism, that they place fraternity with the Norwegian proletarians above the privileges of the Swedish bourgeoisie and aristocracy’. [23]

Similarly Lenin’s remarks on the Polish problem are apposite (against Walkerism):

‘No Russian Marxist ever thought of blaming the Polish Social-Democrats for being opposed to the secession of Poland. These Social-Democrats err only when, like Rosa Luxemburg, they try to deny the necessity of including the recognition of the right of self-determination in the programme of the Russian marxists.’ [24]

Similarly Marx:

‘I have done my best to bring about this demonstration of the British workers in favour of Fenianism ... I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. I now think it inevitable, although after the separation there may come federation.’ [25]

Point 4 above also has the advantage that it allows for a possible decision by the whole people of Ireland to merge the two statelets on the basis of some degree of autonomy for the northern Protestants. Again, this falls short of socialism, leave alone full employment in the North, but have we in Britain the right to say ‘no’ if this solution is adopted? History leaves little option but for the working class to take the lead in the battle for democracy and self-determination in Ireland. The objectives of this struggle are bound to take on a socialist colouration if the role of the defeatists and appeasers is successfully combated. We in Britain can only gain strength and inspiration from this struggle.


1. Erich Strauss, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy, p.202.

2. Tory (tóraidhe in Irish) means, incidentally, a pursuer – a very good description of imperialists in general.

3. Socialism and Nationalism, p.72.

4. Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) Protestant, admirer of the French Revolution, leader of the ‘United Irishmen’, a revolutionary organization comprising both Catholic and Protestant members, the main body behind the 1798 risings,

5. Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) leader of the movement for ‘Catholic Emancipation’ (i.e. primarily the spokesman of the nascent Irish Catholic bourgeoisie and rich peasantry,’ opposed to. the Irish working class movement – see Connolly, Labour in Irish History, chapter 12).

6. Young Ireland, a movement of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois politicians and literati some of whom became revolutionaries. The most talented of them was John Mitchel (1815-1875).

7. The Fenian Movement, founded 1858, a petit-bourgeois nationalist organization with a good deal of support among the Catholic working class, whose politics amounted to the exaltation of physical force as the only necessary weapon for the expulsion of British Imperialism from Ireland. This movement is the link between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Irish revolutionary nationalism. The term is also applied indiscriminately by Orangemen to all northern Catholic opponents of the Unionist party. The historical Fenian movement in Ireland received the support of Marx and Engels and the First International.

8. Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) Irish bourgeois nationalist leader. Parnell brought the priests in to help him control his movement against ex-Fenians like Michael Davitt who threatened to outflank him on the left. Instead the priests took control and booted him out.

9. J. Connolly, op. cit., p.25.

10. ibid., p.111.

11. The south-western province of Ireland, comprising the modern counties of Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, and Clare.

12. It is important to note that although De Valera’s Republican supporters in the Civil War were different from Dev himself. Especially in the west and south Republicanism had strong links with the radical agrarian movement (arising out of agitation of the Land League – Davitt’s organization) Tom Barry is the great representative of these people, the small farmers of the south and west, who took over several large landed estates during the 1922 struggle. The term ‘national bourgeoisie’ as applied to De Valera as well as Griffith and Collins, his opponents, is used here in the sense of those desirous of establishing an independent Irish capitalism, not in the sense of capitalists dominating a specific national market. Established capitalists at this time in Ireland were either Unionists or Free Staters (as the next best thing to Unionism).

13. One third at least of the total population of the Six Counties.

14. D. MacArdle, The Irish Repulic, p.357. see also D. Greaves, The Irish Question and the British People, p.8 – ‘Between June 21st, 1920 and June 18th, 1922, there were 428 Catholics killed and 1,766 wounded, 8,750 driven from their work, and 23,000 driven or as it was usually put “burnt out” from their homes’.

15. Greaves, Ibid., p.19

16. Paul Foot, Socialist Worker, December 21st 1968.

17. Greaves, op. cit., p.16

18. See, Erin’s Hope, pp.13-15.

19. Fianna Fail – ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ (words taken from the Irish national anthem) constitutional successor to the anti-Treaty Republicans, who had refused to take their seats in the Free State Dáil.

20. See the pamphlet by Andrew Boyd and John Ireland, The New Partition of Ireland.

21. This is the correct form of the name. The connexion with London derives from the plantation powers acquired by the City of London in the area in 1628. The full Irish name of the city is Doire Cholmchille, which means ‘The Oakwood of St. Columba’.

22. There is no note 22 in the printed version. – Note by ETOL

23. Lenin, Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism, p.100.

24. Ibid., p.101.

25. Letter to Engels, dated November 2nd, 1867.

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Last updated: 13.2.2008