National Sections of the L5I:

Reforming the Orange State?

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In a St Patrick’s Day speech this year Gerry Adams said that, “Unionists can be persuaded to recognise that they share a common peaceful destiny with their fellow countrymen and countrywomen in the common territory of Ireland.” Edward McWilliams casts doubt on his optimism.

The “Downing Street Declaration” of December 1993 between the Irish and British governments reassured the Ulster Unionists; there would be no progress towards a united Ireland without the consent of a majority of the Six County Population.

Since the Protestant community of Northern Ireland have a built-in majority this amounts to a veto. The borders of the state were drawn precisely to ensure this and patterns of emigration and job creation reproduce it. Hence, if the roadblock to a united Ireland is to removed by constitutional methods then a significant minority of the Protestants will have to abandon Unionism—the insistence on remaining part of the United Kingdom.

Such a revolution in Protestant consciousness will never be brought about by appeals for “reconciling the two traditions on the island”, dished out by Albert Reynolds, John Major, John Hume and Gerry Adams. The Hume-Adams initiative and the Reynolds-Major declaration have run aground on the rocks of the Protestants’ refusal to consider even the most ethereal “Irish dimension” and the refusal of the British to consider persuading, let alone coercing, the Protestants whom they have subsidised and protected for over seventy years.

The pendulum is swinging once more towards talk of a so-called internal settlement. Such a settlement would have to see a major trade off between the Unionists and the constitutional nationalists; a restoration of devolved government for the six counties (Stormont)—in return for constitutional democratic safeguards for the minority and a role for the constitutional nationalists in government.

Naturally the Unionists want the first without giving any hard and fast commitments on the second. The Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) could not settle for anything less than the second. In fact a seismic shift in Protestant sentiment would be needed for such an internal settlement to emerge.

What are the prospects for any serious changes in Protestant attitudes? The fate of the “reforming” Unionist administration of O’Neil (1963-69) and the brutal reaction of many Protestants to the Catholic Civil Rights movement after 1967 showed a Unionist population of all classes overwhelmingly unified in their resistance to any reform of the sectarian state. Has anything changed?

Unionism has never been monolithic. Significant differences of interest between the various classes of Protestants have appeared both before and after partition. Even within the Unionist bourgeoisie sharp differences have existed; should membership of the United Kingdom be sacrificed to preserving the Protestant ascendancy over the Catholics in the Northern Ireland state. Or vice versa?

Today conflicting attitudes can be found amongst the Protestant bourgeoisie regarding closer co-operation with the Irish Republic. At one end of the spectrum lies Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with its violent sectarian animosity to all Catholics and total opposition to any dealings with Dublin. The Presbyterian rural petit-bourgeois and urban labour aristocratic followers of Paisley represent the most intransigent elements within Unionism. Today, their supporters frequently overlap with membership or sympathy for the Protestant terror gangs.

Despite these fissures within the Unionist bloc there has remained a bedrock of unity laid down during 200 hundred years of resistance to Irish national independence. The Unionist bourgeoisie promoted a reactionary cross class alliance of the Protestants in the North-east over 100 years ago as a device to thwart the Home Rule project of the weaker Irish bourgeoisie in the rest of the country.

Home Rule was a repugnant perspective for the capitalists and landlords of North-east Ulster. They saw themselves, correctly, to be an integral part of the mainland imperialist bourgeoisie itself. They did not want to vacate their seats of power in the imperial parliament for those of a provincial assembly in Dublin. Nor did they wish to share their rule with the agrarian and commercial bourgeoisie of the South.

After three decades of thwarting the Home Rulers, the revolutionary wave of 1916-1921 finally convinced the Unionists that the project of maintaining the Ascendancy in the whole of Ireland was a lost cause. The class interests of the industrial capitalists and the great landowners demanded that they secure for themselves a stable territorial enclave with a Protestant majority that would stay firmly embedded in the economic orbit of the United Kingdom and its Empire. This they got in 1921 together with a devolved Parliament, their own heavily armed police force and part-time militia.

After seventy years of economic and political development in Northern Ireland, does the Unionist bourgeoisie still see its class interests as best served by this political arrangement?

Does the Protestant working class continue to derive privileges from its own bourgeoisie? Have developments since direct rule weakened their commitment to the Union or Protestant Ascendancy?

The Protestant community has deep roots as well as a confused national identity. Without understanding this it is impossible to understand the division of the working class in northern Ireland. This politico-religious identity has a profoundly reactionary content today but it evolved into its present character after an initially progressive genesis under English rule.

After 1691 this rule was stabilised. The expropriation and in part expulsion of the original population was more complete in North-east Ulster than elsewhere. A substantial “loyal” population of Scots planters, whose distinguishing mark was their Presbyterian Protestantism, replaced them.

But the English landlords who dominated the new administration were mainly Anglicans. The Protestant parliament in Dublin in 1697 initiated a series of Penal Laws against Catholics designed to deny them any possible political influence or social power. It also discriminated against Presbyterians, excluding them from political power.

In the subsequent century elements of “Protestant Ascendancy” including some landowners and a growing Presbyterian merchant and manufacturing class came to regarded themselves as the Irish people. This was quite typical of the attitude to nations before the French Revolution.

The peasantry, the great majority of most peoples, were simply ignored when it came to considering who the nation was. It was the propertied classes, the people with a stake in the kingdom, who constituted the “nation”. The growing spirit of independence, based on their growing property made the Presbyterian bourgeoisie resent the restrictions placed by England upon their parliament and their trade.

From the 1770s a movement appeared for reform of the Protestant aristocrat dominated Dublin parliament, to alleviate the century-old barriers to Catholic equality and to wrest greater commercial freedom from Britain.

With the failure of the reform movement, and under the impact of the American and French examples, a section of the northern industrial Presbyterian bourgeoisie in the 1790s developed a revolutionary democratic movement, the United Irishmen. They struggled to bring the mass of the people under its leadership in a fight against English rule and so proclaimed the equality of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter (Presbyterian).

For the first time, therefore, a struggle was undertaken to create an Irish nation. Tragically, the unevenness of economic development and the deep political-religious divisions of colonial Ireland, within which this national bourgeoisie had emerged, placed barriers between them and the majority of the rural masses. These were not overcome by the time of the insurrection of 1798.

Thousands of armed Presbyterian farmers who mobilised as United Irishmen in the North-east were quickly scattered with the aid of the English-backed aristocratic landlords’ reactionary mobilisation of aggrieved tenants in the Orange Order.

The Orange Order, founded in 1795, adopted a passionately anti-Catholic ideology in the service of political reaction. It appealed to a large body of economically depressed, mainly Anglican, cottier-weavers squeezed between the competition from factory produce on the one hand and, when they sought work in those factories, competition from the cheaper labour of Catholics drawn from the destitute peasantry.

The defeat of the 1798 rebellion, and the Act of Union which followed it, rapidly intensified the North-east of Ulster’s integration within the triangular maritime zone of Belfast, Liverpool, Glasgow and the heartland of capitalist Britain.

As the Belfast/Lagan valley region began to industrialise, first through the mechanisation of cotton spinning and later the linen industry, competition between Catholic and Protestant workers grew apace. In the 1840s the Orange Order was reborn as an urban phenomenon, within the labour market, enforcing sectarian stratification across the burgeoning textile industries. Employers and landlords (often the same people) were quick to exploit this situation both on the shop floor and through programmes of house building.

In the course of the nineteenth century the rapid industrialisation of Ulster as an economic enclave within Ireland proceeded on the basis of overwhelming dependence upon the British market. This led the majority of the bourgeoisie of Ulster to ferociously defend the Union with Britain. Whatever the possibilities that a degree of national autonomy might have held for this bourgeoisie, the path of reactionary defence of the Union was far more favourable for dividing, subordinating and thus super-exploiting the unskilled and winning to its side the organised, skilled labour aristocracy.

The dependence of “their” industries upon British state contracts and free access to the British market led the mass of the working class in the North-east to see their best interests in a defence of the Union with Britain as long as the alternative to this appeared to be a bourgeois nationalist Ireland which would weaken those economic links.

This is not to say, of course, that every skilled Protestant worker was an Orange bigot or even a lodge member. Indeed, militant craft unionism was often linked to a definite Liberal and social reformist outlook. But significantly these Liberal or reformist workers, to the extent that they shared with Orangeism a view of the North-east as the centre of “progress”, “civilisation”, “modernisation” and feared incorporation into “the backward, priest-ridden South”, were dragged into the anti-nationalism of the pro-imperialist propaganda of the lodges.

Unskilled and semi-skilled Protestant workers were by no stretch of the imagination “labour aristocrats”. But they did enjoy preferential treatment in job allocation, conditions of work and security. Pervading all Protestant communities was a profound sense of the communal and personal superiority of the Protestant. The labour aristocracy was the pivot for such bourgeois influence and outlook within the Protestant working class as a whole.

Nothing underlines the significance of the historic gerrymander of the impregnable two-to-one Protestant majority that partition represents and the bogus nature of its “formal democracy” than the fact that from its foundation in 1921 until 1969 forty-six percent of the total seats in the Stormont parliament went uncontested!

Outside Belfast there was continuous Unionist representation in 23 of the 32 seats over a forty year period. In the 16 Belfast seats embracing a largely working class industrial city, Unionists held seven seats continuously between 1929-1969. The same principles and results were repeated at provincial and local levels of representation. From the statelet’s inception political power was concentrated in the hands of a small clique of civil servants and ministers:

“The inter-war Unionist cabinet, a product of the boom years of local capitalism, reads like an executive committee of Northern industry and commerce, with a few members of the landed gentry thrown in for good measure”1.

This clique rested on the specific operation of Orange clientilism and British support. The Orange Order was the main institution linking the Unionist bourgeoisie through the decentralised local authority system, to its working class and petit bourgeois base; it was (and still is) represented on the ruling Ulster Unionist council and the vast majority of Unionist M.P.s and cabinet members were (and are) Orangemen.

From being a key element in the pre-partition local authority system the Orange Order’s influence was extended into the new state apparatuses after 1920. It concentrated in the inter-war years on the enshrinement of Protestant clerical influence within the state education system and on the prevention of “Catholic infiltration” into public positions.

In this it could claim some success. By 1943 only 37 of the 634 civil servants in administrative and technical grades were Catholic, with none in the top 55 posts. Needless to say, along with the plethora of other orders and societies (often with overlapping membership), it orchestrated a dense network of disadvantage.

To a large degree the viability of a separate six county state in 1921 rested on the concentration of Protestant Unionist industrial capital in the Belfast region, in turn integrated into the Glasgow, Liverpool complex, at a time when British imperialism was still a major world force. However, the inter-war years underlined the vulnerability of its economic dependence on Britain.

With economic crisis and recession its major export oriented industries collapsed. Unemployment averaged 15% of all workers (twice as high for Catholics) reaching a peak of nearly 30% in 1938. War provided a reprieve for the major industries but the precarious nature of capital accumulation and employment became apparent again in the 1950s confronting Unionism with the dilemma present since its foundation:

“On the one hand, it was forced to facilitate the restructuring of the traditional sector while maintaining employment, especially among its working class Protestant base of support. On the other hand, it had to ensure that incoming industry did not upset the balance of sectarian power on which the very existence of the state depended.”2

Throughout its history Northern Ireland (NI) has remained a highly specialised fragment of the U.K. economy—closely tied to the fortunes of British capitalism but with a bourgeoisie displaced from within the ruling class family. For example, after 1921 no member of the Ulster bourgeoisie ever held a cabinet seat and the bulk of its MPs at Westminster, up until the 1960s, were from the landed gentry.

In so far as the Stormont regime had any overall economic policy it was one of maintaining and strengthening its integration with the U.K. This put distinct limits on economic diversification. In a recent study Harris found that over the period 1963-85 NI still remained the most specialised manufacturing structure in the U.K.3

In the mid-1950s the Unionist government belatedly began to address the crisis in its traditional economy. At first it adopted “a piece by piece” approach whose purpose was as much concerned to politically restructure it along traditional sectarian lines as create new industries. But forced by the pressure from its own base of support among Protestant workers’ and their shifting allegiance towards the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the government initiated a regional investment strategy to foster the development of new industry across the province.

Lavish investment grants, tax concessions and other inducements were used to attract British, US and European firms. A new multi-national fibre industry emerged. During the 1960s manufacturing production rose much faster in NI than in the U.K. as a whole, with growth totalling 60% over the decade. But though impressive the effect on job numbers could not offset the even faster decline of the traditional sectors.

By 1970 sixty-five thousand new jobs had been created but total manufacturing employment was now 180,000, compared with the post-war peak of 185,000. Given NI’s traditional high birth rate this failure to increase total employment would have led to a huge reserve army of labour but for the enormous exodus of its people. Significant numbers were Protestant but, as had been the case since the foundation of the state, Catholic emigration was twice as high.

Since the world recession of 1974 and the attendant oil crisis NI manufacturing expansion has come to a halt. The province has been in the grip of a prolonged industrial crisis from which it has proved unable to recover despite high levels of politically motivated investment. The rapid growth of the previous decade was reversed and industrial output is now well below the highpoint achieved in 1973. Manufacturing employment has fallen almost continuously throughout the 1970 and 1980s and is more than 40% below its 1974 level.

The most striking collapse was in the synthetic fibre industry but all of the foreign multinational sector has been badly hit. While overall manufacturing output has fallen 19% from 1973 and output per worker has risen 41%, productivity in the manufacturing sectors is actually 15% below the level in Britain.

Like its southern neighbour NI’s strategy for growth and economic health centred on attracting foreign investment. Yet unlike the South the results have been insignificant. Since the mid-1970s foreign companies have been cautious about siting in the six counties. Certainly the conflict is a significant factor. It is reckoned that something like 20-40,000 jobs have been lost by this reluctance of companies to invest.

But as the collapse of the synthetic fibre industry showed the nature of foreign investment—“Branch plant” industry—has been extremely vulnerable to changes in global market conditions and changing priorities of corporate planning.

In 1990 there were 207 plants (not companies) externally owned (including British companies). This is a decrease of 41% since 1973. Thus we can see that the policy to open up, diversify and expand the NI economy has been a failure.

“Direct rule had remarkably little difference to the structure of power in Northern Ireland . . . Catholics are still systematically the underdogs in every sphere.”4

Both communities benefited from the economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s but its impact on them did little to undermine the sectarian patterns of employment. According to the 1971 census the overall rate of unemployment for Catholics was 14% compared with 6% for Protestants. There were two main reasons for this. Habitual discrimination by the bulk of employers in recruitment and training practices was one. The other was the location of industry itself. This is not open to the same stigma as outright discrimination faced with catholic and Protestant applicants but it is even more devastating.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s most new investment went to Protestant regions around Belfast—Antrim, Down and North Armagh. Relatively little went to either Belfast itself (where Catholics were concentrated heavily) or the predominantly Catholic west. Between 1960 and 1973 the promotion of the synthetic fibre industry was a major part of industrial strategy. Some of the multinationals such as Courtaulds, ICI and British Erkalon moved away from the old sites of linen employment to new growth centres such as Carrickfergus, Antrim and Coleraine.

The new sector had a much larger component of white collar employment and a much higher proportion of male workers—but once again mainly Protestants. The ability of the Stormont government to consolidate economic advantage for the majority was their obvious control of gerrymandered local authorities. But the continuation of patronage even after the abolition of Stormont and the removal of much local authority power testifies to the durability and effectiveness of the informal mechanisms of discrimination.

Thus while executives of incoming multinationals may be much less likely to be pro-Unionist, it is doubtful if this has radically altered their firms’ labour recruiting procedures. Industrial location has, of course, been a major factor, ensuring the maintenance of Protestant/Catholic ratios, along with a wish to avoid sectarian division on the shop floor. Equally, if not more important, is the physical threat to Catholic employees.

Physical expulsions from Harland & Wolff shipyards began in 1916 and continued in every decade following until 1970. This has created large areas of the economy where Catholics do not bother to apply. In the last ten years this has actually worsened.

Catholic disadvantage, despite the Fair Employment legislation and a Fair Employment Commission, remains the rule at nearly every level of employment in what remains of the multinational sector east of the Bann and in the aerospace/engineering companies of east Belfast.

By far the most striking feature of the Northern economy since 1973 has been the growth of public sector employment. During the 1950s and 1960s when there was a relative under provision of public services in NI, public sector jobs averaged between 15% and 25% of total employment. Between 1970 and 1974 employment in the public sector grew by nearly 40% and between 1974 and 1979 by a further 25%.

Unsurprisingly the most rapid growth occurred in the security and prison services, but also in education and health. As civil unrest effectively cut off the flow of foreign investment, successive Westminster governments have used public expenditure to increase jobs in the public sector to compensate for the fall in employment elsewhere. Between 1970 and 1992 the proportion of total employment in the public sector rose from just under 25% to around 40%.

But as the agricultural and construction sectors of the economy depend heavily upon public expenditure it is fair to say that one half of all employment is now directly determined by state expenditure. No wonder one economist has dubbed NI a “Workhouse Economy”, in the sense that most of the working population are engaged in servicing or controlling one another.

The expansion of the public sector alongside the operation of systematic discrimination reflects the different ways Catholic and Protestants interact with one another via the state machine. The best example of this is the Labour government strategy, in the 1970s, of “Ulsterisation”. Alongside “the carrot” of public service investment in health and welfare this saw a marked increase in security force personnel. The latter has been the main growth area in male public sector jobs, benefiting Protestants almost exclusively.

In 1981 health and education figures showed considerable expansion in employment of Catholics, but these were areas where, due to a separate Catholic schooling system and a tradition of Catholic women in nursing, Catholic employment had always been higher. Whereas in the case of public administration, especially the NI civil service a Fair Employment commission investigation in 1983 revealed that while there had been a considerable improvement in Catholic employment numbers, Protestants dominated the more senior grades. Only eight Catholics, out of a total of 121, were in posts of assistant secretary.

The 1981 census figures confirmed the under representation of Catholics in key economic and political decision making occupations such as senior government officials, science and engineering, personnel management, marketing/sales management, and in the shipbuilding and aerospace industries. Two further areas are of crucial political significance. The first is the power industry, notably electricity.

Power workers had been crucial to the success of the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike which brought down the Sunningdale power-sharing executive. Catholics made up only 13% of this workforce, reflecting the location of the main generating stations in East Antrim. Among the 250 senior management posts only 4% were Catholic and fewer than 10% of engineers were Catholic.

A similar stratification profile can be found in Banking, insurance and finance, most of which is located in Belfast, once more reflecting the class profile of the Catholic community and the political and spatial framework of the Northern Ireland state.

Therefore there is little sign that direct rule from London has altered the underlying structural position of both communities, although Catholic disadvantage would have widened without the growth in the public services. Despite the pressure it has been under, especially from US advocacy of the McBride principles5, the Tory government, like its Labour predecessor, has failed to radically alter systematic sectarian inequality.

To take one serious step forward, even on a capitalist basis, would have meant a state planned regional strategy, drastically re-locating investment and taking these decisions out of the hands of Protestant businessmen, civil servants, and politicians. Such an approach has no appeal to a Tory government, for obvious economic and political reasons. In fact under any government it is a utopia. Under capitalism the Catholic workers’ gains would be the Protestant workers’ losses and the latter’s acquiescence is therefore unthinkable.

So, crucially the expansion of the state sector has played the major part in stabilising the NI economy since the long downturn after 1974. In particular, Protestant employment in the security services/prisons has roughly equalled the fall in employment in shipbuilding/engineering and the synthetic fibre industry, thus further deepening loyalist commitment to the British state presence and money.

But in the later 1980s and 1990s the Tories have increasingly begun to address the financial problems that have inexorably risen from 20 years of “soft budget” constraints in Northern Ireland—a payment deficit of around 25% of GDP. They have intensified their cut backs on the public sector, while in the private sector they have altered the basis of support for indigenous industry, woefully inefficient by virtue of its guaranteed local and UK markets.

Local industry is a crucial bastion for Orangeism, the employer of a big percentage of the Protestant population. Without support to face up to the cold winds of competition in changing global market conditions, it will be forced to shed more and more labour.

Against a background of an economy whose major employment sectors for the past 20 years are now being slowly whittled away, the crisis and further fragmentation of Orangeism is inevitable. Having lost its monopoly of political power, its economic base—though still strong relative to Catholics (Catholics are 22 times as likely to be on the dole)—becomes increasingly precarious as working class Protestant unemployment grows. As one analyst puts it:

“There is a sense, however, in which the economic pre-eminence of the state service sector has acted as a prophylactic on sectarian conflict and reduced the attractions of UDI or repartition. There seems little doubt that it has also reduced Catholic support for a United Ireland in the short term as well as weakened loyalist capacity to mount a coherent opposition to British political strategy.”6

There is some evidence to suggest that the reorganisation and increasing ruthlessness of the loyalist terror gangs in the last four years is connected to a worsening of the employment prospects of younger unskilled Protestant males. If so it confirms, if confirmation is needed, that increased immiseration within the Protestant working class of itself, will not in itself lead to a lessening of sectarian divisions. The shift in the last 20 years or so from Ulster Unionism to plebeian Paisleyism, the adherence of younger Protestant working class and lower middle class males to the Independent Orange Order, rather than the Ulster Unionist Party dominated Orange Order is further evidence of deepening dissatisfaction with the old Unionist leadership’s inability to deliver on privilege. These privileges may be ”marginal”, as some British socialists say. But when people are living on the margins, they will kill for them!

Thus it is little surprise that evidence of the British government meetings with Sinn Féin and the Major/Reynolds agreement have further widened the divisions between official Unionism, Paisleyism and sections of the Protestant working class who increasingly look to the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) as their natural “protectors”. The Orange monolith, of course, has always been marked by class tensions and strains in times of perceived threat to either economic privileges or the political basis from which they spring.

There is little doubt that stories of growing middle class involvement in the procurement of arms in preparation for what the loyalist murder gangs see as the final “betrayal” are true. So, too, are the claims of RUC on-the-ground collusion with the UDA/UFF.

Large sections of Ulster’s economy are intimately dependent on the disguised protection of local or UK demand, and hopelessly vulnerable to the rigours of the new economic liberalism of the single market with its drive to open up public procurement and the integration of credit and finance.

There has been growing interest among leading sections of the business community in the North about the possibility of deepening and extending the links between the NI economy and the Republic of Ireland. This might indicate a pragmatic realisation, especially among the banking and financial sectors of Unionist capital, that a greater “harmony of interest” between North and South is the only way to meet the parlous conditions of the six county economy which has lost its traditional industrial moorings and is fearful of utter dependence on Westminster largesse. Since 1990 the NI committee of the CBI (British) has established a number of joint working parties to consider where North/South economic and commercial connections can be improved.

Although nearly 30% of the North’s Dairy Industry is owned by Southern Co-ops there has been relatively little trade between North and South. It is calculated that an increase from the current total trade level of £1.5 billion to £4.5 billion would create 75,000 jobs alone. But reality cautions against a facile optimism, pointing to the enormous complexities in “fusing” two economies that have entirely different histories and structures, even though both share contemporary features like Branch plant investment.

One of the most popular proposals recently has been the creation of an economic corridor on the eastern seaboard of the island from Belfast to Dublin, mimicking the dynamic regional systems of Silicon Valley, Cité Scientific around Paris and the Reggio/Bologna region in Italy. The object would be to generate an agglomeration of external economies through the clustering of interdependent firms operating within the European market.

This proposal undoubtedly sounds attractive to some Northern capitalists especially if it were to be underwritten by enormous and permanent British/EC subventions. But such processes require more than just money and goodwill. And at the moment the latter is in much greater supply than the former. There may be room for, initially, strategic alliances between a few enterprises on both sides of the border to create the economies of scale necessary to penetrate international markets, including the Irish market.

But the NI economy is particularly weak and small scale, with few external links and with a poor tradition of Research and Development and consequently of innovation. It also has limited access to equity and venture capital and is saddled with poorly developed producer services. There is little evidence that it could sustain the enormous risk—economic and political—entailed in measures that went much beyond modest attempts to increase trade and policy networks whose concrete benefits might well be very slight.

Rosy dreams of North/South economic co-operation have been connected in some commentators’ minds with the supposed emergence of a new Catholic bourgeoisie. Not only, it is argued, do Protestants witness Catholics occupying more and more of “their” jobs, especially in the former preserve of the state apparatus, but now amongst the property and money making classes Catholics are “making their mark”. A mark which is signified by a determination to forge a new set of economic and political relations in a framework which will inevitably have an all Ireland political dimension. What is the truth of this?

Catholics traditionally serviced their own community within the Northern State—as builders, solicitors, publicans, shopkeepers, teachers, priests. But over the last 15 years—against what remains a substantial Protestant monopoly in large areas of old and new business—a growing number of economists, statisticians, scientists, engineers, journalists and public service managers have been Catholic.

The legal profession, for example, is increasingly Catholic dominated and even the judiciary is now more representative of the population balance. In education the increasing tendency of Protestant students to emigrate as third level students has meant Catholics making up a larger proportion of the graduate pool.

Also, as the state has grown it has, in the Thatcher years, encouraged a rash of “job creation” agencies, financial advice services and estate agents to service a newer and better off Catholic petit bourgeoisie. As we have already seen, this altered Catholic class profile has been due to the very selective effects of direct rule administration, fair employment legislation, expanded employment in education, health and welfare and increased educational opportunity. What has happened in the North has some similarity with the emergence of a black bourgeoisie in the US, but its opportunity for political advancement is much more restricted.

It has been calculated that there are, among the “nouveau riche” of the Catholic middle class, a group of around 30-50, mostly lawyers and doctors earning up to £500,000 per year.

They are mostly people who have made their money from “the Troubles” and the Thatcher reorganisation of the health services or both. This new strata has clear lifestyle parallels with a strata of the modern southern bourgeoisie—materialistic, greedy, loud and individualistic, a long way from the smug piety of “the Catholic community” of yesteryear.

Since the Anglo Irish agreement of 1985 there has indeed been tangible evidence of its growing access to government and increased influence in jobs and promotion. From sensitive posts, like the three Catholic permanent secretaries out of ten at the NI Office, to the announcement in 1992 that the government had set a goal of 25% Catholic representation in the top policy related posts for 1996. Along with this there has been a host of nominations for membership of advisory and consultative bodies. But they do not yet represent a significant or sizeable Catholic bourgeoisie, though their aspirations certainly lie in that direction.

Some of these people are without doubt what used to be called “Castle Catholics”7 but the bulk remain, if not open and clear cut SDLP supporters, nationalist—like their ilk in the South, much given to parroting John Hume type homilies about the “pluralism” of an Ireland “of all the traditions” in a Europe “of all the regions”. Meanwhile, they make money.

This class hardly amounts to a vibrant new bourgeoisie about to reshape the political economy of Ireland pulling their hesitant Protestant equivalents into a new prosperous 32 county state as an integral part of the European Union. Whilst it is possible that some sections of Protestant businessmen may go along with some all-Ireland investment projects there is much more to suggest diehard Orange resistance.

For while the last 20 years has seen the NI economy denuded of almost any productive base we should be aware that the war has become the basis of an alternative booming economy for tens of thousands in the Belfast region.

Not only the security forces of the RUC and Royal Irish Regiment (RIR), (the former earning somewhere in the region of £30,000—£50,000 a year), but the security firms which employ 5,000, the lawyers, accountants, builders, glaziers, who after a bomb in the centre of Belfast can make a small fortune are tied to this “war economy”.

And this money, in turn finds it way into restaurants, car sales, holidays abroad, concerts. No wonder that there are more luxury cars per capita in NI than in any other part of the U.K.

This is not to suggest that bourgeois Unionism has no interest in any political solution—one, of course, on its terms—but their mass base are suspicious of any political sell-out of their “way of life”. In these circumstances plebeian Protestant mass resistance remains a strong possibility. All hopes for a progressive peaceful outcome to the present struggle based on the Catholic or the Protestant bourgeoisie and their hangers on will come to nothing. Nor will facile optimism that economic hardship will push Protestant and Catholic workers together and that trade unionism, or a rebirth of Labourism, solve the problems of the divided class and the divided nation. It will not. For this a revolutionary strategy is needed.

A revolutionary socialist strategy for a 32 workers’ republic of Ireland alone can to break up the cross class unity of Unionism. It will not be eroded away by the gradual economic shifts in the Northern bourgeoisie’s material interests leading them to dump on their “own” workers. This, to the extent that it happens, will merely create a desperate and explosive mass for Paisleyism.

Rather, revolutionary communists seek to win over Protestant workers to the idea that their own self-interest as a class, lies in actively supporting the democratic struggles of the anti-unionist population of Northern Ireland against national and social oppression.

A united workers’ republic in Ireland will end all forms of clerical interference with peoples’ lives by separating Church and State and will raise the material living standards and social provisions for all. Far from robbing the Protestant workers of their past gains it will greatly improve life. But at the same time it will end all inequality, privilege and discrimination.

Protestant and Catholic workers alike face bitter struggles over the next years as the Tories attack the welfare state and public sector and as small scale industries collapse in the face of European competition. Where Catholic and Protestant workers work alongside one another immediate unity is not only possible it is manifestly essential. But these initially temporary and limited struggles must be used as a launching pad to win the workers of the two communities to a common political, anti-capitalist and therefore anti-imperialist struggle.

All past experience of working class unity, before the first world war and in the early thirties shows that if these struggles do not raise the workers’ horizons beyond the bread and butter issues this unity will not long survive. The agencies for destroying it are many and varied.

Despite their sectarian privileges the Protestant working class has suffered from growing unemployment and greater social inequality within their community, providing the objective proof that it is capitalism that is the key mechanism for the enslavement of both Catholic and Protestant workers.

What is needed above all is the conscious agency of unity—a new revolutionary communist workers’ party to unite the workers of Ireland in the fight for power. l

1 P Bew & H Patterson, The Northern State, London, 1979
2 L O’Dowd et al “Shaping and Reshaping the Orange State” in Between Civil Rights and Civil War, London, 1981
3 R Harris, “Manufacturing Industry”, in J Spender (ed) The N.I. Economy, London, 1990.
4 J Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland, London, 1990.
5 A series of equal opportunity guidelines drawn up by the veteran Irishpolitician Sean Mc Bride in the 1980s.
6 L O’Dowd, “The Service Sector in N Ireland”, in P Teague (ed), Beyond The Rhetoric, London, 1987.
7 After Dublin Castle, headquarters of colonial rule. “Castle Catholics” were those willing to collaborate with the British.