Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ulster: the origins of sectarianism (2000)

Book Review from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ulster's Third Way by Brian McClinton, Ulster Humanist Association. 76 pages.

The title of this booklet is something of a misnomer. It does not really propose an alternative political or economic scheme for Northern Ireland. What it does do is outline the religious conflict that was, and is, interwoven into the politics of Ireland and which has played a vital role in confusing the working class. Unfortunately, the author gives religion an independent role in the Irish conflict whereas it was a weapon, albeit a powerful one, used by contending economic interests in fashioning the politics of the country.

Protestantism, in its most virulent form, as McClintock shows, came to Ireland in the shape of the Plantation of Ulster in 1603. But the Gaelic tribes that resisted the Planters did not do so because of their opposition to Protestantism. Had the Planters been Catholics, or even Humanists, intent on dispossessing those already there, the latter would still have resisted and the ensuing violence would have become a marker in Irish history.

The belief is common in Ireland, where it was ruthlessly promoted by the Protestant Ascendancy, that the Church of Rome strongly favoured Irish political independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inevitably some local clergy, reflecting their upbringing and the sympathies of their local communities, were Nationalist or Republican in outlook but the Irish Hierarchy remained consistent in its opposition to Irish independence through the ages. Rome's aspiration was to use Ireland as a springboard for the re-conversion of England, where, despite sometimes ferocious persecution, the Catholic Church retained many influential allies.

According to McClintock, Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen succeeded in persuading a group of Protestant and Catholic Irishmen to abandon their religious affiliations in the 1790s in pursuit of a common interest and that is the way forward. That is a half-truth that has sustained much Republican fiction. True, some northern Presbyterians and some southern Catholic peasants were united in an organisation whose purpose was to overthrow English power in Ireland. But the interest of the northern Protestants and the southern Catholics were certainly not identical. In the North the Protestants were farmers who enjoyed a modicum of prosperity as a result of the benefits of what was known as Ulster Custom. These, in turn, were led by a Presbyterian petite bourgeoisie, largely inspired by the French Revolution and the writings of Tom Paine. This revolutionary zeal was inspired by what they perceived to be adverse trade sanctions operated by London and, it is no accident that in later years, when their grievances were put right, the political heirs of these Presbyterians became the bitterest opponents of Irish Home Rule.

Conversely, in the south, the Catholic peasantry were motivated by their wretched conditions as tenants-at-will and, while the rebellion in the North was directed against the English military establishment, the Rising in the south was primary aimed against landlords, and their land stewards, who were invariably Protestants.

The working class and small farmers, who constituted the voting and cannon fodder at the turn of the last century and who are still burdened by the slogans of bigotry which disguise the true nature of the Irish conflict, did not mysteriously arrive at a sectarian consensus. This was the work of political opinion-formers, politicians, the business community and, of course, church leaders acting in a political capacity. Where the churches are indictable is in their willingness to be used by the profane business and political interests whose ultimate power resided in the numbers they could enlist into their battalions.

As a Humanist McClintock does a good job in helping to clear away the ignorance and superstition on which religion is based, but because in Ireland he finds more justification for his case in the story of what happened, he wholly neglects the more important question of why it happened. Thus he disregards the conflicting economic imperatives of the fledgling southern capitalists and those northern capitalists who had got fat on the benefits of the British connection imperatives, which lay behind an apparently religious conflict.
Richard Montague

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