After more than 22 years of the Good Friday Agreement which ended the militarisation of the conflict in northern Ireland, the underlying tensions of the unresolved national question in Ireland have once again erupted onto the streets of Belfast and Derry.
The scenes of loyalist rioting on the Shankill area and the number of casualties sustained by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) were reminiscent of what are euphemistically referred to as “the Troubles”, the 30-year long episode of Ireland’s historical struggle for independence which resumed with the Civil Rights movement in 1968.
This latest episode was sparked by the refusal of the police authorities to prosecute Sinn Fein for organising a public funeral ceremony of Bobby Storey, a central leader of the Republican movement.
Adding fuel to this Loyalist fury was confirmation of the Brexit protocol imposing a trade border between the UK mainland and the six county statelet, an arrangement which effectively keeps Stormont within the EU trade zone and prevents a hard border between the two Irish states. For many within the Unionist population this was confirmation of them being cut adrift from the UK and being carried away by a strong undercurrent of Irish unification.
Whilst the mass media have been content to portray this through the lens of mutual Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, the rioting is just the most recent and dramatic expression of successive waves of loyalist aggression targeting the nationalist population. This has been a near constant feature of the settler state since its inception in 1921 and did not cease even after the Good Friday agreement.
The siege of Short Strand
As a district, Short Strand is literally stranded as the only sizeable Catholic enclave in the predominantly Protestant east Belfast. It sits close to the now almost defunct Harland and Wolfe shipyard, symbol of the old Protestant industrial ascendancy. It is also home to some Protestant women who moved from the Shankhill Rd after getting married into Catholic families. This is how they described their experience in 2002, four years after the Good Friday agreement:
"Since May our homes have been under sustained attack from loyalists day and night," she says. "They have thrown everything at us - pipe-bombs, petrol bombs, fireworks packed with nails, dinner plates, parts of washing machines, even Perry Como records. They have used sleep-deprivation tactics, blasting music and blowing whistles to keep us awake at night.”
“They have blocked us from using other services located in or near Protestant streets, including the dentist's, doctor's, chemist's and post office. They have stopped food and furniture stores and a Chinese take-away from delivering to this area.”
Recording their story was Irish Times journalist Suzanne Breen who reported:
“There has been no trouble for the past fortnight but the women believe it is only a lull. ‘Short Strand Scum Keep Out’ and ‘No Short Strand Taigs On These Roads’ has appeared on the walls of surrounding Protestant roads.”
The local Catholic church, St Matthew's, occupies a prominent position on the immediate interface of the Short Strand and the staunchly Loyalist area around Newtownards Rd. The church’s front is generally closed up so that parishioners enter and leave discreetly, avoiding the main road. In March 2011, loyalists attacked the church and nearby homes with stones and petrol bombs. At the time, the church hall was hosting a social event for children with special needs and their carers. As with the recent rioting, police who were called in to protect the nationalist population were also hit with a barage of petrol bombs, rocks and bottles.
As a result, both Sinn Fein and the Unionists agreed in 2013 to erect yet another “peace fence”, this time within the grounds of the church itself. According to figures released by Stormont’s Department of Justice in 2016, this was part of an overall increase bringing to 50 the current total of such segregationist barriers.
Belfast was not the only place to feature in the most recent round of loyalist rioting. Derry’s Waterside area, around Nelson Drive and Lincoln Courts, also strongly UDA controlled, saw an escalation of trouble with a care home for elderly residents targeted.Twelve cops who attempted to stop the rioting were reportedly injured.
The Centenary of Partition
Part of the backcloth to this latest wave of Loyalist rioting, is the centenary of partition established by the Government of Ireland Act in 1921. This was the formal act which carved up the island and established the legal framework for Protestant supremacy in just 6 of the 9 counties of Ulster. Both Westminster and the Unionist establishment are determined to celebrate this regardless of the Good Friday agreement’s insistence on consensual politics and the promise of a potential referendum on Irish unity.
Unsuprisingly such celebrations are an affront to the nationalist population and difficult to stomach for Sinn Fein who have attempted to stear a middle course, between republican opposition on the one hand and, on the other, accommodation to Loyalism within the framework of joint government. After an initial series of skirmishes over the matter, Sinn Fein deputy Alex Maskey announced an agreement reached between all Stormont parties to conduct a benign programme of “lectures, social media initiatives, an open day, exhibitions and outreach activities” to mark the occasion.
Whether the Orange Order and the Loyalist paramilitary organisations such as the UDA and UVF will be content with such a watered-down, commemoration of partitionist supremacy, remains to be seen.
Any remembrance of partition is a potential minefield. One false step and the whole thing could blow up. Even the historians advising on its centenary commemorations have become embroiled in a controversy over access to the archived documents from the period. One hundred years later and many of these files remain classified, particularly those relating to the formation of the “B specials”, the gangs of uniformed thugs used by Westminster to terrorise and repress the nationalist population for over half a century.
Arguing for releasing the archives, the chairman of the advisory committee, Lord Bew, clearly felt uncomfortable with any historical cover-up:
“Our view on the panel”, he was reported as saying by the April 21st Guardian, ”is that it would be entirely wrong to try and sugarcoat aspects of the foundation of the state which are so troublesome, particularly for the Catholic working class in Belfast.”
Lest we forget
“ a divided Ireland could only be used to perpetuate the sectarian divisions in Ulster, prevent the unity of the working class and in so doing reinforce the ascendancy of the respective ruling forces over the whole”
- James Connolly.
Bew and his fellow historians are well aware that - whatever dark secrets remain buried in the vaults of Westminster’s political archives – the Stormont regime was founded on a reign of terror involving multiple atrocities against the Catholic population.
In addition to the many pogroms carried out in nationalist neighbourhoods, partition was accompanied by the mass expulsion of Catholic workers from the shipyards. The expulsions spread to the main engineering works and some linen mills. An estimated 10,000 workers were expelled of whom a quarter were targetted for being ‘Rotten Prods’, I e, non-sectarian Protestant workers. In all, 18,000 male workers and 1,000 female workers were driven out of their jobs by Loyalist gangs, many of them fellow workers.
Catholic shipyard workers were subsequently attacked on their way home . In total the pogroms left almost 500 dead, over 2,000 seriously injured and 23,000 driven from their neighbourhoods.
The partition pogroms were the culmination of an historical pattern of colonial settlement. From the time of Cromwell, this featured dispossession of the native Irish speaking catholic peasantry throughout Ireland, confiscation of their lands and their replacement with a caste of English-speaking protestant farmers, merchants and landlords from England and Scotland.. However, it was in Ulster where the plantation was most intense and succeeded after 1798 in establishing a social and political caste with a distinct identity of interests.
Following the defeat of the United Irishman uprising, resistance to British rule under the banner of Republicanism became almost exclusively the terrain of the oppressed Catholic population, with workers and peasants
Caste, class and the Orange State
Let not the poor man hate the rich
Nor rich on poor look down,
But each join each true Protestant,
For God and for the Crown.
And for old England all unite,
As Orange brethren do,
Around their ‘no surrender flag’,
The Orange and the Blue.
---- Verse from a popular Orange song
The caste identity amongst the settler population in northern Ireland has never succeeded entirely in suppressing the class struggle of workers against their bosses. In a couple of episodes in the first half of the 20th century, both Protestant and Catholic workers combined to fight for a shorter working week and against unemployment. In both instances, however, not only were these struggles inhibited by the Protestant caste identity and interests but they were followed shortly thereafter by pogroms against Catholic workers and neighbourhoods.
Most notable was the 1919 General Strike in Belfast which began when industrial action by the shipyard workers spread into a 4-week general strike. The city’s 30,000 shipyard workers were at the heart of it but, crucially, municipal workers were also involved, and in all 60,000 came out. Workers seized control of electricity, gas and water supplies and closed the newspapers in a struggle that lasted for four weeks.
The principal demand was to cut the existing 54-hour week by 10 hours without loss of pay. It was a revolt against the tyranny of a working day that lasted from 6.30am to 6.00pm with Saturday morning working.This confirmed the material reality of a shared proletarian condition, one that required a unified class response.
It is noteworthy that the strike committee comprised both protestant and catholic trade unionists, with a catholic, Charles McKay, at its head. However, the vast majority of strikers were Protestants occupying most of the skilled jobs and trapped by the ideology of Unionism.This was reflected in the strike committee’s early agreement to enroll 300 strikers as Special Constables to “maintain order” within the city. It was this same force which was subsequently mobilised as part of the Unionist counter-revolution that carried out the wave or workplace expulsions, including most of the leaders of the 1919 strike.
The Belfast strike was part of a series of engineering and shipyard strikes throughout the UK, most notably in Glasgow where the Red Clydeside was teeming with revolutionary energy following the October insurrection in Russia. The Belfast union leaders were of a different ilk. Because of their caste consciousness they believed that a local settlement with their Unionist masters was far more likely and refused to form an alliance with the workers’ movement across the narrow stretch of water in Glasgow.
In the event, the Clydeside revolt was crushed by military force and the Belfast workers left to accept a shoddy compromise. The episodic unity that was forged in struggle rapidly receded allowing the Unionists to take the policital offensive and launch the terror of partition. Where there was once unity on the strike committee it now gave way to workplace “vigilance committees” overseeing the expulsion of Catholic workers and Protestant “radicals”.
Whereas the de facto unity of Catholic and Protestant workers in 1919 was spontaneous in character, the depression conditions of the 1930s produced a more conscious, albeit temporary, class alliance. Following a temporary post-war uplift, the 20,000 Belfast shipyard workers of 1924 found their numbers reduced to a mere 2,000 by 1932.
This led to an extraordinary working class rebellion against the harsh conditions which forced workers to seek relief in the workhouse and through payments attached to hard outdoor labour. In addtion to several mass demonstrations, strikes and mass picketing, Catholic and Protestant workers set up barricades to fend of baton charges by the police. One account recalled how:
“On the Falls, the police moved in with armoured cars and rifles. Bates, the Home Secretary, gave orders that live ammunition be used in Catholic areas in an attempt to whip up sectarianism.This actually had the opposite effect and created greater unity. When strikers from the Shankill got word of the battle on the Falls, they ran to assist their Catholic comrades.When the dust had settled, the state had killed one Catholic and one Protestant. When it came to the funerals of these martyrs, 100,000 lined the route.”
As the unemployed movement gained momentum the government opened negotiations with the largely loyalist trades union officialdom who had taken no active part. To head off the potential of a broader labour insurgency, workers were offered an increase in unemployment relief from 6 shillings to a maximum of 20 shillings a week.
Not all of the demands had been met but it was a significant victory that demonstrated the potential power of united working class action independent of the Unionist establishment. What followed however, showed that the national question – the partition and the Protestant caste system – would always remain a barrier that could not be overcome by uniting solely around bread and butter issues. Indeed, even unity around such issues was severely inhibited by the division of the trades union movement along partitionist lines.
While some protestant workers in Belfast did join the Communist Party as a result, the fragile unity that was established in 1932, was revealed by more pogroms in 1935 when around 2000 Catholics were driven from their homes and expelled once again from their workplaces. In the nearly 70-year period that has lapsed since 1932 there has not been one serious display of working class unity despite the rising tide of militant trades unionism on the British mainland during the 1960s and 1970s and the prevalence of greater social misery in the Six Counties.
Underpinnning this docile trades union movement was the caste system which offered more employment opportunities, higher pay, better housing and greater access to higher education to the Protestant working class. This in turn was cemented by the Orange Order which offered a cultural and historical identity against the “croppies” and the “papists”. Linked absolutely to the British empire, the Orange mythology embodied an unvarnished racism and sense of superiority over the native irish population.
Thus, when the natives became restless again in the Civil Rights Movement in 1968, it was the figure of Ian Paisley who mobilised the Protestant reaction. The racism of the latter was summed up in his 1969 statement that all Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin" .
Paisley’s demagogic demonisation of the Catholic population was the first wave of Unionist reaction against the tide of change. As the British army took its rightful place as protector of the Union and empire, the reaction subsided until Westminster realised that the nationalist insurgency could not be repressed solely by counter-insurgency operations used in previous colonial situations. Despite a host of repressive measures including Diplock Courts, internment without trial and the draconian Special Powers Act, which was the envy of the apartheid regime in South Africa, there was no turning back.
When the shoot to kill policy of the SAS and the British Army culminated in the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, it produced the greatest popular explosion seen in Ireland since the war of independence. British rule had to change its tactics, the consequence of which was the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973.
In many ways this was a precursor of the Good Friday Agreement. Not only did it allow for a power-sharing assembly and executive in Stormont but it created an all-ireland Council of Ministers involving the Dublin government. When the assembly was elected it comprised an overwhelming majority of pro-Sunningdale deputies. The new Stormont executive finally met on 1st January 1974 but collapsed just 5 months later following a 14-day loyalist general strike.
Whilst the strike was enforced by the loyalist paramilitaries of the UVF and the UDA, there was little doubt that the political opposition to Sunningdale by a substantial section of the Unionist Party enjoyed mass support amongst the Protestant working class. It was a reminder once again that the national question in Ireland could not be sidestepped.
At the same time it demonstrated that Unionism was at an impasse. It refused to go forward but equally there was no going back. And so began the fragmentation of the monolith and the break up of the Unionist Party itself. This was highlighted even more so by the Hunger Strike of 1981 when 10 republican prisoners starved themselves to death. The election of the strike leader, Bobby Sands, as a Westminster MP was a further shift marking the emergence of Sinn Fein as the dominant force within the nationalist population.
Results of the Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday agreement put an end to the military side of the conflict and opened the road to dismantling institutionalised Protestant supremacy. It also coincided with the emergence of the so-called “Celtic tiger”, a period of unparalleled capitalist growth in the 26 counties which hastened a growing integration of both economies.
Whilst unable to tackle the severe social deprivation that continued to plague both nationalist and loyalist working class districts, the millenium marked a seismic change in the social foundations of the Protestant ascendancy. In housing, education and employment, the outright discrimination against Catholics has been eliminated leading to near-equivalent numbers in most sectors.
This is clearly registered in the Labour Force Survey Religion Report 2016 which noted that:
“between 1990 and 2016, the proportion of the population aged 16 or over who reported as Protestant decreased from 56 per cent to 44 per cent. The proportion who reported as Catholic increased from 38 per cent to 42 per cent.”
Whereas previously Protestants represented a far higher proportion of the workforce,
“this difference has decreased over time – in 1992, 69 per cent of working age Protestants and 54 per cent of working age Catholics were in employment; by 2016 these rates were 71 per cent and 68 per cent respectively”
The 2021 census is expected to confirm these trends and register a possible Catholic-majority population as a whole. Even without this, however, the existing demographics combined with the fragmentation of Unionist establishment could well lead to a Sinn Fein majority in the next general election.
At a purely constitutional level, such a majority - combined with the promise of a border referendum in the Good Friday agreement – appears to offer the prospect of a peaceful transition towards a united Ireland and an end to its colonial status once and for all. However appealing such a prospect may appear, its realisation should be viewed within the framework of British imperialism’s broader strategic and economic interests.
All the mainstream political parties in Britain, without exception, are Unionist through and through and will fight tooth and nail to defend the existing boundaries of the United Kingdom. Besides sacrificing significant financial and trade interests, the territorial loss of both Northern Ireland and Scotland would be a hammer blow to British imperialism. It would mean not just the existence of fully independent – and possibly hostile - nations on Westminster’s doorstep, but also a potentially body blow to its naval power.
With the waters around Scotland and Ireland belonging to different states, Westminster would cease to have automatic, direct access to the north Atlantic, an area of strategic military importance both historically and today.
The stakes are high and if Irish history teaches us anything it is that the Orange card can still be the ace in the pack. Loyalism has definitely been weakened but it is far from being a spent force. The recent removal of DUP leader Arlene Foster shows that a fight is already brewing for the heart and soul of northern Irish unionism and it is a fight in which the Loyalist paramilitary organisations still wield considerable influence.
Moreover, the value of northern Ireland should also be viewed in the context of the collapse of the so-called Celtic Tiger and the financial crisis which hit both parts of the island in 2008. This removed the veil of apparent prosperity in the 26 counties and revealed it’s true status as a semi-colonial country utterly dependent on foreign direct investment. Once again, the people of Ireland are squaring up to this reality with recent elections demonstrating huge support amongst working people for a new republic based upon social justice.
It is within this context that the 6-county statelet retains its value. When carving out this state, Westminster and the Unionist establishment never viewed the area as just another part of imperialism’s profit and loss account. It was always a fall back option to guard against an all-Irish insurgency.
Whilst the recent and successful strike of health workers for higher pay once again showed the potential for working class unity, the continued segregation of Catholic and Protestant workers into distinct neighbourhoods, schools and trades unions remains a toxic element that still breathes life into partition
The second and final part of this series will show why such an insurgency is still on the cards and why the national question is still at the centre of the coming Irish revolution. Irish freedom will never be handed over on a platter, it will have to be fought for with the same valour and intelligence of Connolly but with the strategic perspective of Marx and Lenin.
Article footnotes  Storey spent more than 20 years in British jails, beginning with internment without trial when he was 17. He died last year and Sinn Fein organised a funeral cortege of 30 people which complied with Covid guidelines. However, with hundreds of people lining the streets in support, Loyalist forces were furious and demanded prosecution for violating Covid restrictions.
The colonisation of Ireland was not always successful. Increasing numbers of settlers were assimilated into Irish culture and as late as 1798, the United Irishman uprising against British rule included prominent Protestants influenced by the democratic ideals of the American and French revolutions. Their motto was , as their leading member Theobald Wolfe Tone put it, ‘to unite Catholic Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman’.
[Author’s note: I was active for many years in the Irish solidarity movement in Britain and wrote extensively on the freedom struggle at the time.. One article I wrote was a review of the book War and an Irish Town and another deals with the Loyalist general strike. They are available here as facsimiles in the blog titled Published writings of Brian Lyons but will be fully digitised in due course.]