Are the killings, the bombings, the hunger strikes, the stone-throwing in Northern Ireland really quite as pointless as they seem on the surface? The short answer is, yes, they really are. They are completely pointless, both from the point of view of the wage and salary earning majority and also, nowadays, from that of the capitalist minority too.
Of course sectarian violence, which has been a recurring feature of Belfast life since early in the 19th century, was always pointless for the working class, but in the past it did make some sort of sense from the capitalist viewpoint in that it represented an expression of rival capitalist interests. But this is no longer the case.
What we are witnessing in Northern Ireland is a minority of workers fighting their masters’ battles of yesteryear, long after their masters have settled the differences which once divided them. We say a minority because the vast majority of workers in Northern Ireland, whatever their religious background, only want to be left alone to earn their living and live their lives under the sort of “normal” capitalist conditions as exist in Britain and the South of Ireland, free from the violence of both terrorists and so-called security forces.
A historical detour
At one time the capitalist class in Ireland was so divided that its two sections resorted to sectarianism in order to protect and further their divergent interests. The roots of the present situation go back, not to the Norman barons’ invasion of Ireland in 1169 nor to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, but to the uneven development of capitalism in Ireland in the 19th century.
In the North, in and around Belfast, industrial capitalism developed just as it did on the other side of the Irish Sea in Lancashire and on Clydeside. The industrial capitalists of Northern Ireland in textiles, shipbuilding and related engineering industries-were in fact an integral part of the industrial capitalist class of the British Isles. The South, on the other hand, remained overwhelmingly agricultural. The interests of its infant capitalist class were different from those of the industrial capitalists in the rest of the British Isles: they wanted the erection of tariff walls behind which they could develop, protected from the competition of English capitalists. Their interests were expressed by the politicians of the Home Rule, or Irish nationalist, party.
When in 1885 the leader of this party, Parnell, perfectly expressing the interests of the Southern Irish capitalists, demanded that a Home Rule parliament should have the power to impose tariffs, alarm bells began to sound in Northern Ireland, especially as the nationalists were playing the Catholic card (although Parnell himself was a protestant). This was a shrewd move on their part since, the Catholics being in a majority in Ireland, it was an easy way of ensuring majority support for their programme. Election results from this period confirmed the effectiveness of this tactic.
Faced with the prospect of being cut off from the rest of Britain, and its overseas markets and sources of raw material, behind the tariffs walls of a mainly agricultural Ireland governed by obscurantist and incompetent nationalist politicians, the Belfast and district industrial capitalists decided in their turn to play the Orange card: to stir up and play on Protestant fears of “Rome Rule”. This worked too, so that from the 1880s onward the workers and small farmers of Ireland were lined up, according to their religious background, behind one or other of the two rival sections of the capitalist class in Ireland; the Protestants behind the big capitalists of the industrial North-East and the Catholics behind the fledgling capitalists of the South.
It is from this period that dates the mythology and rhetoric which still has some sway over sections of the working class in Northern Ireland. The Unionists beat the Lamberg drum and shouted “No Surrender”, “Not An Inch”, “Remember 1690”, “No Popery", “Home Rule is Rome Rule" and other such crudities. The Nationalists rewrote Irish history to make it appear as a 700-year long struggle (800-year long now!) of the “Irish Nation” to free itself from English domination. And they created an artificial pseudo-Gaelic culture—with harps, “Gaelic” games, Gaelicized names and other such affectations—to replace the real one which had long since died out on the East coast of Ireland where the bulk of the population lived.
Enter the Republicans
The only addition to this mythology since this period, and it is an important one, of course, is Republicanism. The Irish nationalist politicians were not republicans: they only wanted autonomy within the British Empire, a Home Rule parliament with certain economic powers. There was, however, a small minority, mainly “intellectuals” and Irish emigrants in America, who wanted to establish an independent Irish Republic by force of arms if necessary. The Irish Republican Brotherhood had been formed in 1865 but, apart from the Fenian “rising” in 1867 and the subsequent bombing campaign to try to secure the release of the Fenian prisoners, did little until Easter 1916. Then they staged what, if human lives had not been sacrificed, could only be described as a comic-opera rising: a relative handful of republican fanatics tried to take on the might of the British imperialist state in the middle of a war! Needless to say. they were easily crushed, and ruthlessly—the leaders, including the wounded James Connolly, propped up on a chair, were shot. The severity of the repression earned the republican cause considerable sympathy and support and after the end of the First World War the republicans, re-organised as the Irish Republican Army, waged what in Irish history books is called “the war of independence” against the British state and its army.
This conflict ended in 1921 with a treaty which established a more or less independent Irish state, but at the same time excluded from it six counties in the North-East of Ireland which remained attached to the United Kingdom. This arrangement was not to the liking of the IRA which then turned its arms against the pro-treaty elements who formed the first government of the so-called Irish Free State and has been fighting on and off against all governments in Ireland, North and South, ever since. This gave rise to yet another myth—the need to liberate the “Six Counties" from British rule and re-unite them with the rest of Ireland.
The Partition of Ireland
The 1921 Partition of Ireland was, in the political circumstances, the most practical solution from a capitalist point of view, and it suited both sections of the capitalist class in Ireland. The Belfast capitalists remained united with the rest of the British capitalist class, while the Southern capitalists got their own state with which to protect and further their interests. When the republican party (whose absurd name, drawn from 19th century Irish mythology, Fianna Fail, comes out better in English: Soldiers of Destiny!) came to power in 1932 under De Valera, tariff barriers were put up against British goods and an attempt was made to develop a native Irish industry behind them. In Northern Ireland, the “statelet” that was established there was given a virtual free hand by successive Westminster governments. Labour as well as Conservative, to run its internal affairs as it wanted. The term “statelet” is justified as the Stormont government was not simply an administrative unit of central government like the the local authorities in the rest of Britain. It had at its disposal armed force: the notorious B Specials. These were little more than an officially-recognised Protestant militia and were used by the Stormont government to intimidate the one-third Catholic minority who, ever since 1921 and still today, have been “loyal” to the Irish State south of the Border rather than to the British state.
Despite the fact that any system of election would have given the Unionist party victory, (there is a two-thirds Protestant majority in Northern Ireland) local election boundaries were gerry-mandered to keep Catholic Nationalist representation to a minimum. When in 1948 one-man, one-vote was introduced into local government elections in Britain, this was not applied in Northern Ireland as it would have enfranchised more Nationalist than Unionist voters. An unofficial, but nevertheless effective, system of “job reservation" for Protestants grew up, especially in public employment but also in some industries.
By the end of the 1950s it was clear that the attempt by the successive Fianna Fail governments in the South to develop Irish industry behind protective tariff walls was not going to succeed. The government decided to recognise this and in 1965 signed the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement which, as its name suggests, provided for tariff barriers between Ireland and Britain to be lowered and eventually abolished. In addition, Ireland was associated with Britain’s various unsuccessful attempts to join the Common Market in the 1960s and went in when Britain was admitted in 1973.
In other words, by the 1960s the Border had ceased to have any economic significance. The conflict between the two sections of the capitalist class in Ireland, which had arisen out of the uneven development of capitalism there, had been settled. Sectarianism no longer served any capitalist interest and could be and was abandoned. However those who had stirred it up to defend their economic interests found that it was not something that could be turned off at will. Too many people had come to accept the poison they had been fed on. All the same, with the economic basis for sectarianism gone, it could have been expected to die out slowly and in fact at the beginning of the 1960s this was beginning to happen. The IRA campaign launched in 1956—which was nothing compared with what’s happening today was ignominiously abandoned in 1962. Flags on official buildings in Belfast even flew at half-mast on the death of the Pope in 1963.
Why, then, did sectarianism not gradually disappear? When in the middle of the 1960s the Civil Rights movement was launched in Northern Ireland, the Unionist government in Stormont could have granted all its demands basically for the dismantling of the undemocratic features of the Northern Irish statelet since even the purest democratic system would still have left them in power, as subsequent events have proved. All the demands of the Civil Rights movement have now been granted and yet still, as the recent district council elections show, the Unionists can rely on winning.
The Unionist government, however, chose to react to the Civil Rights movement as if it were a Republican plot and unleashed the B-Specials. The result was predictable: the revival of the IRA as an armed protection against the club-wielding, trigger-happy official state thugs. The IRA was able to establish a basis from which to develop as a Catholic sectarian murder gang. But the leaders of the Civil Rights movement are not entirely free from blame for the worsening of the situation. In their political naivety—many of them were influenced by Trotskyite ideas that thrive in student circles they decided to supplement the basic demands for “civil rights" by social reform demands on which they hoped to unite Catholic and Protestant workers.
Their solution to the traditional Protestant/Catholic rivalry for houses and jobs in Northern Ireland was the apparently obvious and simple one of building new houses and opening new factories. But that is not the way capitalism works. Houses and jobs are limited under capitalism because it is a system of production for profit and not a system of production for use. Thus to talk, as Bernadette Devlin and the rest of them did, of establishing “equal opportunity” in housing and jobs when one group had come to acquire some priority in these fields as against another was bound to be interpreted by the first group as an attempt to take away jobs from them. The Protestants regarded this as an attack on their “rights” and “privileges” and responded by abandoning the Unionist wets (O'Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner) and rallying round the more sectarian Protestant groups. Hence the rise of Paisley. Thus did the admittedly well-meaning attempt of the Civil Rights movement to overcome sectarianism have the opposite effect.
Crimes against the working class
Thus, apart from the political bungling, the situation in Northern Ireland, even though taking an irrational form, still does have an economic basis. For historical reasons, the frustrations and indignities suffered by the workers in the Catholic ghettoes of Belfast and Derry and along the border areas of Northern Ireland—where percentage unemployment has long been well into double-figures—have expressed themselves as a support for the imaginary solution of a united 32-county Ireland. A number of unemployed young men and women from these areas, given the strength of republican and Catholic nationalist mythology in their communities, have been prepared to go so far as to take up arms to achieve this irrelevant objective. They have been prepared not only to shoot and kill other young men from a similar background who joined the British Army to escape from unemployment, but also an unforgiveable crime against the working class—to place bombs in pubs and shops, knowing full well that the victims would be ordinary working-class men and women. We hasten to add that the private murder gangs on the other side of the sectarian divide—the UVF and the like have been equally guilty of such atrocities.
This is one of the reasons socialists do not support the IRA but denounce it as an anti-working class, sectarian murder gang. The other reason is that the “solution” they propose—a united Ireland—is no solution at all. Apart from the violent methods they use, they share the illusion of other nationalists in the British Isles that the problems facing workers of Catholic background in Northern Ireland or workers in Wales or in Scotland are caused by some faulty political arrangement: rule from London rather than from Edinburgh, Cardiff or Dublin. In actual fact, however, these problems have an economic cause: the capitalist system of class ownership of the means of production and distribution. As long as capitalism continues to exist these problems will remain, however the political superstructure is re-arranged and no matter how radical or violent the rearrangement. The experience of the South of Ireland since independence in 1921 is proof enough of this.
Bobby Sands, Frank Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara . . . died, in the light of cold logic, for nothing more than to have the pillar-boxes in Northern Ireland painted green. While other young men, in the so-called “security” forces, are dying to ensure that these same pillar-boxes stay painted red. Nothing more, nothing less in the end.