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Partition: A "carnival of reaction" 100 years on

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James Connolly, the great Irish socialist, correctly predicted the consequence of the partition of Ireland would be a "carnival of reaction both north and south". As if to confirm his point, this year’s centenary has been celebrated by attacks by Orange mobs on the ironically named peace line in Belfast. Though today nearly half of the population identify with a united Ireland and have nothing to celebrate, Loyalists have threatened to ignore the Good Friday Agreement and attempt to march through Nationalist areas, underlining that "Northern Ireland" has offered a large part of its population nothing but oppression and repression.

National Revolution

The creation of "Northern Ireland" took place against the background of a National Revolution in Ireland, Britain’s oldest colony, between 1916 and 1923. The Easter Rising of 1916 saw an Irish Republic declared and Dublin held for six days before the rebels surrendered. The Rebels clearly did not have the support of the majority of the city’s population but the subsequent execution of 16 of the Rising’s leaders in Kilmainham Gaol, turned the majority of Irish people decisively against the British. The leaders who faced the firing squad included James Connolly, wounded and strapped to a chair. Patriotic British Labour MPs cheered the announcement in the House of Commons.

The 1918 British General Election secured an overwhelming majority of Irish seats for the Republican party, Sinn Fein. Their members promptly convened as a sovereign Irish Parliament, the first Dail Eireann, in 1919. This was declared illegal by Britain. The opening shots in a guerilla war soon followed as the Irish Republican Army, IRA, guardians of the Dail, fought it out with British troops and police.

Alongside the War of Independence and linked to it was the mass action of the Irish workers. A General Strike successfully defeated Britain’s attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland in 1918. Another General Strike in 1920 was called for the release of over a hundred Republican prisoners who had gone on hunger strike to protest their internment. "Soviets" became a popular expression in Ireland for workers’ action committees with the Limerick Soviet and over a hundred more "soviets" ranging from strike committees to cooperatives.

This showed the enormous potential of the Irish working class for taking the lead in the national revolution against the British. A decisive lead by Irish workers, alongside small farmers and rural labourers, could have built soviets throughout Ireland, defended by a workers’ militia on the road to a Workers’ Republic.

A guerilla war by itself was unlikely to drive the British out, given the scarcity of weapons and ammunition and the uneven strength of IRA units, so the pressure for negotiations became intense. Nevertheless, the British government, too, realised it could no longer continue to rule most of Ireland directly. Home Rule, against which the British Tories and Sir Edward Carson’s “Ulster” Unionists had threatened armed resistance, was suddenly conceded to two parts of a partitioned island.

Counter revolution

On May 3, 1921, the Government of Ireland Act (1920) came into force. This "Partition Act" provided for two separate Home Rule jurisdictions in Ireland, both subordinate to Westminster and the Crown and still part of the British Empire. In the north east of the island, "Northern Ireland", comprising six of the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster, would hold elections to its own Parliament. Similarly, it was intended to set up a Home Rule Parliament for the remaining "southern" 26 counties.

The elections took place on May 24. In the North, 40 Unionist candidates and 12 Nationalists/Republicans were elected. In the 26 counties, no elections were held as 124 Irish Republican (Sinn Fein) candidates were returned unopposed with 4 Independent Unionists from Trinity College, Dublin. The southern Home Rule parliament never convened as Sinn Fein stood against the Partition Act and continued to send their representatives to Dail Eireann.

After decades of Unionist hostility to Home Rule for Ireland, the revolutionary wave of 1916 to 1921 finally convinced them, at least those in the six counties, that maintaining their ascendancy over Catholics and nationalists in Ireland as a whole was a lost cause. The industrial capitalists and big landowners of Ulster, whose overwhelming dependency on the British market had long been established, settled for a territorial enclave with an inbuilt Protestant majority, a devolved Parliament, a heavily armed, sectarian police force and the notorious Specials, a new militia based on Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, units.

No surprise then that the election in the six counties was accompanied by widespread violence against Catholics and the Sinn Fein election campaign. The previous year had also seen the outrageous expulsion of 7,000, mainly Catholic, shipyard workers from their jobs in Belfast, including around 2,000 "rotten Prods", that is Protestant trade unionists and socialists. The expulsions spread throughout the engineering industry as Loyalist Protestant workers acted on Edward Carson’s incendiary anti Sinn Fein rhetoric.

Despite the Sinn Fein election victory, the Partition Act, by establishing a government in the six counties, had created a fait accompli, with Winston Churchill boasting, "From that moment, the position of Ulster became unassailable". Indeed. It nicely set the scene for the British government to offer negotiations with Sinn Fein in June. Realising the IRA’s military weakness and conscious of the northern Unionists’ confidence in their established power, the latter agreed.

A truce followed and by the end of 1921 an Anglo-Irish Treaty had been agreed. In early 1922, the Treaty was signed by the British government and some of the Sinn Fein leaders. Its provisions were well short of a separate republic. The governors of the new Free State would have to take an oath to the King. It would then have dominion status as a member of the British Commonwealth with Britain retaining its naval bases in the South. As for the North, the transfer of powers to the devolved government was already happening and the pledge to hold a Boundary Commission never materialised.

The British Prime Minister, the wily David Lloyd George, threatened "terrible and immediate war" if the Treaty were not accepted. The Treaty was condemned by a minority of the Sinn Fein leadership, including Eamonn De Valera, and 9 out of 15 divisions of the IRA. But Dail Eireann accepted the Treaty by 64 votes to 57. The southern bourgeoisie with the backing of the Catholic Church weighed in behind the Treaty. The ensuing civil war in the South saw the defeat of the anti-Treaty IRA as the British moved swiftly to arm the new Free State army. By 1923, the counter-revolution was complete, and the Irish Free State was consolidating into a clerical and anti-working class vassal of British Imperialism, just as Connolly had predicted.

The Northern State

In the North, the character of the new state was perfectly summed up by the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, who approvingly called it "a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state". However, around a third of the population was Catholic and, by scandalous gerrymandering, they were deprived of any shred of political power. For a community that, in intermixed areas, had been subjected to vicious pogroms with loss of homes, jobs and lives, this was a prison house state.

The Special Powers Act, which had been passed in the new Northern Parliament in 1922, was designed as an emergency measure during the worst of the violence in Belfast. It eventually became a permanent law and one admired by South Africa’s Apartheid prime minister B J Vorster in the 1960’s. It contained the death penalty for some firearms and explosives offences and flogging and imprisonment for others. Its most effective power was internment, which could mean the indefinite imprisonment of all those suspected of being a threat without any recourse to trial by jury.

So, for those who identified as Irish, mainly Catholics, systematic discrimination in all walks of life became institutionalised. This was particularly apparent in housing and jobs. Local government gerrymandering by Unionists ensured that the building and allocation of public housing and appointment to thousands of jobs went to Protestants. Derry was the clearest example of this; in 1966, the Corporation was Unionist controlled although the adult population was 20,102 Catholics and 10,274 Protestants.

Since house ownership was a requirement for local elections, this operated hugely against Catholics, hence the call of the Civil Rights Movement for "One man, one vote". Ratepayers voted but not lodgers and company directors got extra votes. The discrimination was just as fierce, if not worse, in manufacturing industry. In 1970, Harland and Wolff’s shipyard employed only 400 Catholics out of a 10,000 workforce. There were similar tiny Catholic minorities in Mackie’s and Sirocco Engineering Works. The expulsions from the shipyards of the 20’s were never redressed and set the scene for the coming years. In 1972, Catholic male unemployment in Belfast was twice the overall average, thus leading to a higher rate of emigration.

Mass anti-Unionist revolt

The sectarian contradictions at the heart of the northern state finally burst apart in 1968 with the birth of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, NICRA. Inspired by the contemporary US Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, the mass of the Catholic/nationalist population swung behind their demands to end discrimination and harassment by the state. The October 5 march in Derry was savagely attacked by the RUC and the crisis deepened.

As more marches took place, so they came under the cosh of loyalist gangs and state forces. When a large-scale RUC incursion into the Bogside estate in Derry was launched in 1969, nationalists drove out the police with petrol bombs and bricks, forcing Labour’s Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, to send in British troops. Alongside the Battle of the Bogside, there were also serious clashes in Belfast as loyalists, often aided and abetted by the RUC, sought to drive out Catholic families.

An initial "sandwiches and tea" welcome for the troops, as protectors against the loyalist mobs, soon evaporated as any meaningful reforms failed to materialise and street clashes subsequently broke out between troops and nationalists. If NICRA’s demands were being ignored by the Unionist state and its British backers, then nationalists began to look elsewhere towards direct action to pursue their interests.

The pogroms on Catholic areas posed the issue of self-defence and confirmed to Catholics that they could not rely on the state for protection. This explains the growth of Citizen’s Defence Committees and the rise of the Provisional IRA. A struggle to reform the state had grown over into a struggle to "Smash Stormont" and to get rid of the border. British rule was now the problem, without it there could be no border.

The Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971 and then the slaying of 14 Derry protesters on Bloody Sunday 1972 by the Parachute Regiment had escalated the armed struggle against Britain and alienated a whole community. The slaughter in Derry happened under the Tories but no protest came from the Labour Party. The Parliamentary Labour Party actually voted to accept the Widgery Report on Bloody Sunday which declared the British Army innocent, a ruling only overturned many years later, in 2010, by the Saville Inquiry.

The initial year of mass revolt gave way to a Republican armed guerilla campaign which, after thirty years, was unable to expel the British from the north. The political wing of this movement, Sinn Fein, finally sued for peace and a deal and the Good Friday Agreement, GFA, was struck in 1998. The hallmark of this deal was a devolved Assembly, elected by proportional representation, and a power sharing government. Sinn Fein dropped its militant opposition to the state. It decommissioned its weapons, recognised the renamed police force, with an increased Catholic composition, and accepted a Unionist veto over a united Ireland.

Unionism in crisis

Now, 23 years on from the deal, the GFA has struggled to function. It was suspended for three years but is just about up and running now. Sectarianism is as rife as ever with the "peace walls" still in place, and under attack. Power sharing is a charade set against a sectarian allocation of funds to keep the main political parties and community groups quiet. It is also convenient for Westminster to devolve the responsibility for the implementation of austerity. The Executive presides over the UK's most deprived region.

The crisis facing Unionism is profound. A century on and they now command less than half the population’s votes. The material privileges of the Protestant labour aristocracy have been massively eroded with the run down of manufacturing industry and the scaling down of blatant discrimination against Catholics. Above all, the fallout from Brexit has convinced many that a united Ireland is a distinct possibility.

Brexit has shown how futile a border is on the island of Ireland. When both parts of Ireland were in the European Union an "invisible border" promoted frictionless trade. The problems of disruption of trade and bureaucracy will now increase. The pro EU majority in the referendum indicated some Unionist and business support, which partly explains the growth of the middle class Alliance Party.

Even though the DUP supported Brexit, it was forced to rail against a hard border given the economic chaos that would ensue. But they never reckoned on being shafted by Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol which creates an economic border down the Irish Sea. So now a hard land border would be preferable for the DUP and their Loyalist collaborators. As usual, the Orange Card has been played and fear of a united Ireland has been whipped up by instigating riots on the streets.

Loyalist mobilisations invariably make isolated nationalist areas their target. The incursion at the Lanark Way interface in early April was repelled by nationalist youth. As the Orange marching season gets underway in the next few months, with Loyalists giving notice that they will not abide by decisions of the Parades Commission, which has limited some routes they take, the question of defence of nationalist areas could once again become critical. Organised defence squads, which can harness the militancy of the youth, need to be organised against both loyalist and police incursions.

However, Unionism is riven with deep divisions. The relatively small numbers of loyalist rioters on the streets thus far shows their weakness. They face a Tory government that fears antagonising Biden, the EU and the Irish government more than them. No doubt the Tories will attempt to conciliate Unionism and to stitch together a cosmetic deal over the Protocol as any return of a hard land border would be even more damaging.

For a Workers' Republic

After a "carnival of reaction" lasting a century, Britain’s prison house state continues to teeter from one crisis to another. Meanwhile, in the Republic, the scandal wracked Catholic Church has been forced to surrender its cultural dominance, succumbing to successive movements for women’s and LGBTQ rights. British imperialism, responsible for creating this little monster for dividing the working class in the north looks on its “Loyalist” supporters with increasing irritation and incomprehension.

It is time to abolish this state and the border that goes with it. But it would be unwise to rely on a border poll, as Sinn Fein and others do, to complete this job. Though this is entirely within the remit of the British government, Johnson, beset with the SNP’s demands for an independence referendum, has warned there will be no poll "for a very, very long time to come".

It is vital that Irish workers rely on their own strength in the battles ahead, against the Orange state no less than in the south. Workers face impending economic devastation from Brexit and the pandemic as well as heightened repression, and this is true for both sides of the "peace walls".

Working class unity must be forged to defend living standards and jobs around a militant action programme. There is a lot more that unites workers than divides them. Every job and every cut must be resisted with solidarity action and the rank and file must shake up their trade unions so that the leaders are held to account within the union and by democratic assemblies at the workplace. Working class action is key to resisting the attacks that will come from any DUP/Sinn Fein Executive, on orders from Westminster.

However, British Imperialism’s legacy in Ireland shows that common economic interests alone cannot foster working class unity. Class consciousness does not spontaneously or automatically spring from economic struggle. It is disingenuous to believe that ignoring the politics of discrimination and national oppression will make it easier to unite workers. The pro imperialist ideology of Protestant workers is a barrier to prosecuting the class struggle against capitalism and a weapon in the hands of reactionary loyalists.

There is deep unease within the Protestant and Unionist community at the possibility of losing their British identity in a united Ireland. We must point out to them that if the British government so chooses it will ignore their concerns and hammer them down as they did the nationalist community. When your so-called best allies care little for you, it is time to think afresh about your potential class allies.

Indeed, if you do fight to protect your economic interests you can expect the same response from capitalist governments north and south. That is why we need unity across the sectarian divide, the better to organise a more powerful fight against the bosses. Better to throw in your lot with workers across Ireland and Britain and fight for a society owned and controlled by the working class, a Workers’ Republic in Ireland, linked to Scots, Welsh and English workers, all part of a Socialist United States of Europe.