As we enter the critical year of 2021 elites North and South of the border are gearing up to celebrate the centenary of partition, and expecting the rest of us to go along with it, or at least shut-up about what partition really means. Here, in the Manchester Guardian of 1921, is a succinct account of what we are asked to clap hands for:
'Whilst envenomed politicians in the Ulster parliament are voting themselves power to use torture and capital punishment against citizens whom they forbid to defend themselves while they scarcely attempt to protect them from massacre, some of their own partisans in Belfast carry wholesale murder to refinements of barbarity hardly surpassed in Armenia and Constantinople.’
In and around the establishment of the NI statelet, a wave of expulsions and pogroms against nationalists and catholics took place in which hundreds of thousands were terrorised, tens of thousands were violently expelled from workplaces and housing estates, thousands were injured and maimed, and hundreds upon hundreds were murdered in cold-blood. It beggars belief that such crimes against humanity could be worthy of canapés, & fine speeches, but is there any evil our ruling class will not raise a toast to?
The partition of Ireland by a foreign power, aided and abetted by our own native ruling classes both north south of the border is a century old – but its roots lie much farther back, in the attempted plantation of much of the country in Tudor & Cromwellian times. By the year 1500 the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland was in crisis and the area under direct colonial rule, mostly in the region around Dublin known as The Pale, was less than ten per cent of the island as a whole, and shrinking fast. Even within The Pale, Gaelic language and customs were in growing use with Irish being the language of everyday life for many. Outside The Pale many of the original conquering families who came over during and after the 12th Century Anglo-Norman invasion had thrown their lot in with the natives and Gaelicised. Those who hadn’t were under constant hostile pressure from surrounding peasantry and neighbouring Gaelic Lords. In the course of little more than a century, from 1534 to 1641, there were 7 major Gaelic uprisings requiring a large-scale military response from England. Some of these rebellions resulted in the Irish gaining the upper hand for long periods of time. The Gaelic Lords forged alliances with rival European Empires, chiefly with Spain, and although the military benefits of this to the Irish are questionable, it presented the English with the nightmare scenario of Ireland becoming part of a broader European alliance ranged against them and within easy reach of their homeland. Throughout this century or more of incessant subversion and unceasing rebellion, English rule hung by a thread in Ireland and had to be constantly reinforced by the most brutal forms of oppression.
Among these was plantation. It was thought that by the wholesale replacement of Irish tenantry, loyal by custom and culture to Gaelic Lords, with transplanted English & Protestant peasants & soldiers loyal to the appointed English Lord, that Ireland could be pacified, stabilised, and held for the long-term. Plantations on this model were attempted in the second half of the 1500s in Munster, Laois-Offaly, and East Ulster but all failed due to ongoing resistance and the old problem of intermarriage and absorption of the planter back into the Gaelic culture they were supposed to be replacing. But following the crashing defeat of the Gaelic Lords in the 9 years war (1593-1603) (and their subsequent abandonment of Ireland in the great aristocratic scarpering we sentimentally remember as the ‘Flight of The Earls’ a new opportunity arose to attempt the replacement of the demoralised & disorganised peasantry of Ulster. Until now, Ulster had been the most Gaelic and rebellious of all the provinces of Ireland and the source of much of the manpower and initiative of the wars of resistance. The plantation of the province in successive and increasing waves of settlement throughout the 1600s changed this forever. In 1600 the English speaking, non-catholic, crown-loyal population of Ulster was no more than a few thousand at most. By 1700 it was 270000, equal more or less to the native Irish speaking population in the region . Moreover, this 270000 were concentrated on the best land and within the walls of newly built and heavily fortified planter towns and they came to hold virtually all the political and economic power. Due to these huge advantages, to their critical mass in terms of population, and to well-established financial and industrial connections with the rulers of mainland Britain, the province of Ulster and especially its heavily settled North-East corner around Antrim & Down were able to develop at a much faster pace than the rest of Ireland. This further reinforced a sense of distinction from and superiority over the dispossessed native Irish, who were left to wallow in poverty and misery for centuries to come. It provided the British with a large population of local supporters spread over a sizeable portion of the island of Ireland – something which had eluded them for the previous half a millennia. Ever since this period, the Plantation and its descendants have provided the backbone, & frontline, of British Rule in Ireland.
In radical times, however, the fellowship between the mass of settler-colonialists and their own ruling class in Ulster and in the UK mainland has come under intense pressure. In the throes of anti-colonial and occasionally, anti-capitalist rebellion, links of revolt have been forged between rebels of all creeds, challenging the logic of sectarian division and the politics of prejudice and oppression that flow therefrom. By the late 1700s a section of the newly rising bourgeoisie in Ulster had begun to press for a greater say in local affairs and for democratic reform of the unrepresentative Irish parliament. Inspired by the American & French Revolutions, they formed the United Irishmen movement and, understanding that institutional sectarianism had to be overthrown to make space for a mass cross-community independence movement, they made Catholic Emancipation a central demand. In his bestselling & hugely influential 1791 pamphlet “Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”, the protestant Wolfe Tone hit the nail on the head “The proximate cause of our disgrace is our evil Government, the remote one is our own intestine division, which, if once removed, the former will be instantaneously reformed.“
Following the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1792, the British Government suppressed the United Irishmen, who then quickly developed from a moderate, reform-seeking movement to a militant independence movement seeking complete separation from Britain and building a mass base among the peasantry of all creeds. This culminated in a glorious but failed national uprising in 1798, some of whose greatest battles were fought in Antrim under the leadership of Presbyterian revolutionaries Henry Munro and Henry Joy McCracken. Speaking from the dock at his trial in the aftermath of defeat, the unrepentant Wolfe Tone explained that “to unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter—these were my means.” Wolfe Tone cut his own throat in his cell rather than allow the occupation to hang him, proving in the most lamentable of ways his own adage that “Our freedom must be had at all hazards”. Tone was one of the greatest of 18th Century revolutionaries of any nation and, though he was thoroughly of his own time and place, in his realisation that change must come from below - by mass revolutionary rather than elite reformist means - he anticipated the radical socialist movement of a century later: “If the men of no property will not help us they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.”
Following the tragic and extremely bloody defeat of the United Irishmen, Ireland suffered a form of economic partition, presaging the political division to come. Throughout the 19th Century, British economic policy ensured that the bulk of Ireland remained chronically poor and undeveloped, a source of cheap raw materials and even cheaper immigrant labour for the UK mainland. Meanwhile, investment flowed into Ulster’s loyal North East corner and Belfast and Lagan Valley became some of the richest and most heavily industrialised areas on Earth. While Dublin – in the 18th Century a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis – stagnated, Belfast went from strength to strength increasing in population from 20000 to 400000 between 1800 and 1900, when it briefly overtook Dublin as Ireland’s largest city. Sectarian institutions such as the Orange Order (founded in 1795 to disrupt the United Irishmen) took advantage of the sustained prosperity and economic and cultural divergence with the rural, impoverished, catholic south to imbue protestant/presbyterian workers with a false consciousness of ethnic superiority. In it’s founding declaration the Orange Order had declared itself “a barrier to revolution and an obstacle to compromise” – for ‘compromise’, read unity! And that is exactly what it has been ever since.
James Connolly did not mince his words when pointing out how the ideological hold Ulster’s factory owners had over their ‘Orange’ workers was very much to the latter’s disadvantage: “true blue loyalist leaders, who on every platform assert their unquenchable enthusiasm for the cause of Protestant liberty, are the slimiest enemies of the social advancement of the Protestant working class. Sectarian divisions among workers assisted both ‘Green’ & ‘Orange’ bosses and landlords to super-exploit workers of every religion and none – Irish Tory employers hide their sweatshops behind orange flags, and Irish home rule landlords use the green sunburst of Erin to cloak their rackrenting in the festering slums of our Irish towns.”
The late, great english Marxist Paul Foot gives the following succinct account of the connection between partition and class warfare in the lead up to the war of Independence: “An obscure Liberal MP called Agar-Roberts put down an amendment to exclude from the Home Rule Bill the whole of Ulster, the northernmost of the four ancient provinces of Ireland. Effectively this meant that Home Rule could be achieved by Catholics in three quarters of Ireland, while Protestants would stay part of Britain in the other quarter.
The standard of Ulster was raised by Edward Carson, a Liberal and Southern Irish Protestant who had made a name for himself at the bar (not least in the persecution of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality). He understood that the division of Ireland, with one half in Britain, the other out, would immeasurably weaken the whole impact of Home Rule. He argued on two lines.
The first was financial. The figures about the development of capitalism in the two parts of Ireland at that time spoke for themselves. In 1907, for instance, the value of all manufactured goods exported from Ireland was £20.9 million. Nearly 95 percent of manufacturing industry was concentrated in and around the burgeoning city of Belfast. With this area safe in the Imperial Free Trade area, the only substantial profits of British capitalists in Ireland would be secure.
The second argument, which sprang from the first, dealt with what Carson called “the labour problem”. The years 1911 to 1913 in Britain were marked by great labour agitations, huge strikes on railways, on the docks and in the pits. Carson showed that in the areas of Ireland where Protestants felt themselves to be in the ascendant, labour agitation was curbed. If workers could be persuaded to look for their salvation to their religion and not to their class, the prospects for employers were immeasurably improved. Protestants had to feel better, superior, but if they lived in a statelet where everyone was a Protestant, how could they feel themselves better than anyone else?
The new state, therefore, had not only to be predominantly Protestant, it had to include numbers of Catholics who could play the pan of the underdogs; the permanent victims of discrimination. This led to some argument among the new Ulster movement. How many counties should be in the new British enclave they all wanted? The nine counties envisaged by the Agar-Roberts amendment had too brittle a Protestant majority (only 100,000 or so out of nearly one and three quarter million). It was obviously unsafe. A slight change in the birth rate could destroy the Protestant majority.
On the other hand the four counties of the north east (Derry, Armagh, Down and Antrim), though their Protestant majority was unshakeable, were too small in size and in its Catholic population to look viable as a separate state. A compromise between the two was needed. Carson favoured a new “Ulster” of six counties in which the predominantly Catholic counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone were added to the four’ ‘safe’’ Protestant ones. This still left a vast Protestant majority (about three to two). It ensured a decent land area and a sizeable population of about 600,000 Catholics who could permanantly play second fiddle to the million Protestants.”
Upon hearing that the moderate Redmondites of the Home Rule Party - political ancestors of the John Brutons & Leo Varadkars of our day - were acquiescing to the sectarian plot to divide Ireland, James Connolly had this to say in the pages of The Irish Worker:
“Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, 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. To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us.”
Like Wolfe Tone, Connolly was as good as his word and like so many courageous Irish rebels before and after, he did fight to the death against the British Empire. But despite all the courage, all the sacrifice & struggle, with the defeat of the anti-treaty side by Britain and its Irish Allies, partition went ahead & the carnival of reaction predicted by Connolly began North & South of the Border. For partition was a political, economic and cultural disaster for the working class and small farmers all over Ireland. The South became a Catholic Saudi Arabia, a cultural and economic backwater run by religious extremists which broke world records for numbers of the poor and vulnerable it incarcerated at home, and for those it sent into economic exile abroad. Meanwhile, a sectarian regime in the North treated catholics as second class citizens, gerrymandering the parliamentary system so they were systematically underrepresented at a political level and enforcing major discrimination in employment, health, education &, especially, housing. Because of their success in dividing catholic and protestant along sectarian lines, Northern Ireland’s boss class managed to keep wages & conditions for all workers at the worst in the United Kingdom. Protestant workers & poor also suffered and continue to suffer because of sectarianism – with parts of East Belfast as deprived and abandoned as any the worst urban ghettos to be found on these Islands.
The Civil Rights uprising of the late 60s and early 70s, inspired by the global wave of uprisings, was briefly led by revolutionaries from both communities, who like Connolly & Wolfe Tone before them dreamed of a popular uprising that would end sectarianism & partition for good. But the murderous response of the B-specials and The British Army to the civil rights f movement, culminating in mass internment and the Bloody Sunday massacre, provoked a reactive guerrilla campaign by the IRA, INLA & others. The guerrilla campaign, tho often impressive in purely military terms, was precisely the wrong strategy for winning support from protestant workers in the North, or indeed from the vast bulk of catholic workers in the south – who recoiled at atrocities such as the Birmingham pub bombings. 25 years of ultimately pointless and fruitless bloodshed ensued, followed by 25 years of sectarian stalemate, known as the ‘Peace Process’.
But we don’t need to know much atall about history to see the damage that partition does to the workers of Ireland. We’re living it. As long as a part of our island is held hostage by a hostile foreign power, we cannot act as an independent nation. The proof is plain to see in the shape of both jurisdiction’s bungling of the coronavirus. The inability of Ireland to control its own historic national territory and borders has led directly to the disastrous situation we face now north and south of the border. Had we such control we would have had the option of a zero covid approach undertaken so successfully by New Zealand – basically our mirror image on the other side of the world. We would also have the possibility of national health service which could fight the virus much more effectively than at present.
Now that Brexit has come to pass we can expect a much more hostile approach to Irish interests from an emboldened english nationalism. The contempt that the UK elites have shown for Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations, encapsulated by the notorious bully Priti Patel’s threat to starve the Irish – a deliberate recalling of to the 1845-51 genocide – is a sign of things to come. We can expect much more Tory hostility to Irish interests and we can be certain that, aided by the DUP and the orange terror groups, the UK elite could be willing to stir up sectarian division in the North, up to and including a return to sectarian warfare. If Nigel Farage can celebrate when refugees drown in the Mediterranean, you can be sure he has some champagne on ice for whenever the plastic bullets start shattering the skulls of teenagers in Ardoyne or Bogside once again. On the other hand, if we win a United Ireland, it will be up to us how we go about healing the historical wounds and creating a country where freedom from discrimination is right enjoyed by all.
How we go about campaigning for a United Ireland will have a huge impact on how it turns out. A capitalist Ireland which pits worker against worker in a savage race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions, an Ireland in which the political institutions and the mass media remain in control and serving the ends of a tiny elite, will not get rid of sectarianism. Instead, a bosses’ Ireland would risk a return to sectarian conflict as the temptation to rule by division would not be resisted for long by our rulers. Instead, we must rely on the radical methods of Tone & Connolly – grassroots, people powered movements that fight for change on both sides of the border and among all sectors of the working class. We have already seen how the great Repeal victory in the South impacted on Northern Ireland, inspiring the pro-choice movement there and leading to abortion rights in NI. We need to build the same type of national, 32-county campaigns on, for example, an all-Ireland national health service. As well as opposing sectarianism, we must also oppose racism North and South of the border – remembering that our Southern rulers benefit just as much from Islamophobia or anti-immigrant campaigning as the Northern ones profit from Ulster’s historical divisions. Besides, who in their right mind would want to join a United Ireland that discriminates against people on the basis of colour or creed, whatever these might be? In the name of the dead generations & to preserve the dignity of our glorious revolutionary traditions we must reject all the divisions Imperialism & Capitalism would foist upon us and instead move forward together, arm-in-arm, to an Ireland United, Socialist, & Free!