by C. Desmond Greaves
Labour Monthly, September, 1966
THE eruption of the Rev. Ian Paisley into United Kingdom politics has directed much needed attention to the deplorable state of affairs in ‘Northern Ireland’.* It has revealed to a public fed on editions from which Irish news is usually excluded, the depth of Unionist reaction, and the lengths to which its extremists are prepared to go. It has also provided the Unionist Premier Captain O’Neill with the opportunity to represent himself as a Liberal struggling manfully against backwoodsmen bent on wrecking his praiseworthy reforms.
Thus at his press conference on August 5 which was so scantily reported by the British press, he declared that had he followed the tradition of his predecessor instead of his own ‘progressive policies’ the world would have heard little of Mr. Paisley. Journalists have a stronger desire for information than their editors for imparting it to the public. Captain O’Neill was encouraged to explain his ‘progressive policies’ in relation to the most publicised grievances of ‘Northern Ireland’ life. The Irish Press was disappointed. ‘The most probing questions, on Ian Paisley, electoral and local Government reforms and sectarianism were played down.’ As for the constitutional position the Premier observed that he had always found it difficult to explain it to Englishmen. What was clear was that whatever these ‘progressive policies’ were, the reforms have yet to see the light of day. They do not exist. And Paisleyism is a product of ‘Northern Ireland’ society not as it was, but as it is. The stock-in-trade of the self-styled ‘moderator’ of a religious denomination which he founded himself is anti-catholicism pure and simple. But in ‘Northern Ireland’ the basic social fact which permeates every aspect of public life is the enforced inferiority of Catholics. This, and this alone, explains why people vote according to their religion, and why Labour makes such slow progress. Paisleyism could grow in no other soil. And it is soil which Captain O’Neill has done nothing to fumigate.
How did such a bizarre situation come about? At the turn of the sixteenth century the English Crown granted vast tracts of Ulster to adventurers prepared to take the risk of dispossessing the Gaelic-speaking natives. Since these consisted of a Catholic peasantry the means adopted was to bring in Protestant settlers, and to carry through penal enactments against Catholics so as to prevent their regaining their farms. Among the principal beneficiaries were the Chichester family who gained 60,000 acres at one blow. Perhaps the greatest losses were sustained by the O’Neills, the most important family in central Ulster, whose connection with the area went back well over a millenium.
Only in the immediate vicinity of what is now the city of Belfast were the original inhabitants completely replaced. Elsewhere as the lush pasturages of the plains were peopled by settlers, the native Irish broke fresh ground in the barren hills, carving farms out of whin and heather, and here they were tolerated as payers of rent and a reserve labour force. To this day their numerous small farms survive on the high ground, in marked contrast to the Protestants’ large holdings in the valleys.
The sons of big Protestant farmers form the backbone of the armed special constabulary in country districts. They and their sisters have first choice of employment in the thinly industrialised western areas, where many factories refuse to employ Catholics, or at most employ a handful. To add insult to injury some enterprising member of the Chichester family paid a back-handed compliment to autochthony by taking the name O’Neill, whence, it is said, in the fullness of time, came the Prime Minister.
Needless to say, such a system of social segregation could not have survived three and a half centuries without its own form of apartheid policy. The festive banners and furtive graffiti which bid one ‘Remember 1690’ recall that in that year William of Orange confirmed the apartheid with a large force of continental mercenaries. The Orange Order, whose close connection with the Unionist Party Captain O’Neill admitted to the journalists but could not precisely define, was founded in 1795. Among other amiable memories it does annual obeisance to the ‘Battle of the Diamond’, a skirmish which formed part of the landlords’ policy of setting Catholic and Protestant tenants at each other’s throats once more, after they had shown signs of uniting under the influence of Wolfe Tone, and the French revolution.
At Carlisle Circus, Belfast, stands a monument of more recent date, the statue of ‘Roaring Hanna’, the cleric who introduced religious sectarianism into Belfast in the 1850s. This city was traditionally the cradle of Republicanism in Ireland, and though almost wholly Protestant, was the usual refuge for Catholics driven from their homes in the country. The development of industry had drawn in a rural population to which religious feuds were still alive. The great shipyards were being established. Hanna told the Protestant workers that their ‘god-given rights’ were being trampled underfoot by the rapacity of a ‘Romish mob’, and no wonder the well breeched employing class of Belfast subscribed handsomely to the erection of his statue.
To this day there are factories in Belfast which refuse to employ Catholics. To a great extent the Protestant workers predominate in the skilled trades, the Catholic in the less skilled or underprivileged. The division universal in ‘Northern Ireland’ has at times even penetrated the trade union movement where in certain rare cases branches of one society have been (unofficially) Catholic or Protestant as the case may be.
Every time the Irish people in general, or the Belfast workers in particular, reached forward for some decisive advance, reaction played the same card. The riots which marked the introduction of all three Home Rule bills were initiated by the cry ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’. In 1907 and 1919 sectarian divisions were overcome in the heat of hard-fought industrial struggles. In 1932 the unemployment movement transcended them once more. But in every case where this happened the policy of the employers and the government was to sow religious dissension and drive the workers as nearly as possible back to their starting point. Such events inevitably found their echo in Glasgow and Liverpool to which large numbers of Ulstermen had emigrated.
The period since 1938 has seen a steady advance of working-class and democratic unity on a number of fronts. Not for decades has the Irish scene been so promising. The ageing attendance at Orange lodge meetings has shown that sectarianism is losing its attraction for the younger generation. With the Belfast Trades Council and the Short and Harland Aircraft workers in the lead, unity in the fight against closures and redundancies spread into the rural areas where the majority of the people were Catholic. This was a fight primarily against the imperial Government and profoundly educated many Protestant workers on the reality of the ‘constitution’. London collects 90 per cent of ‘Northern Ireland’ taxation, and doles it out for approved projects.
The solidarity struggle for the release of the 173 Republicans interned without charge or trial was begun by the movement of the Irish in Britain, and rapidly attracted the support of several million British trade unionists and about seventy Labour MPs. In this situation where British democracy was taking an increasing interest in a statelet where twenty out of the thirty provisions of the universal declaration of human rights were abrogated, a lively civil rights movement established itself in ‘Northern Ireland’. I remember a conference called by the Belfast Trades Council in which old Catholic trade unionists for the first time in their lives, with glistening eyes, told their Protestant fellow-workers of the disabilities under which Catholics laboured. The Campaign for Social Justice succeeded in extracting from Mr. Wilson a promise to ‘do all in his power’ to restore democracy north of the border.
These developments naturally reflected themselves in a decline in Unionist votes, not a regular or invariable decline, but one which brought forth for the first time in forty years the possibility of an alternative Government. Unity of all anti-unionist forces had long been advocated by the Communist Party. The aim was taken up by others. The process was assisted by the movement towards ecumenism and the pronouncements of Pope John. A situation was developing in which Unionism required the ‘progressive policies’ of Sir Terence O’Neill rather than the ‘not an inch’ of Lord Brookeborough in order to survive. The change was further aided by Britain’s increasing orientation towards the EEC in relation to which her Irish policy became ‘Integration within integration’, a course necessitating a rapprochement with the other part of Ireland, the Republic.
To this readjustment Mr. Paisley, now a ‘civil prisoner’ entitled to wear his own clothes and eat his own food, was an embarrassment. The Unionists locked him up, not because they disapproved of his aim, but because his methods were outdated. Had Mr. Wilson carried out his promise of social justice, there would have been no Paisley. But what can be expected of a politician way-laid by Swiss bankers and ordered to part with his programme or his life?
Central Belfast is full of busy building activity. Chain stores and supermarkets rear their ugly frontages against urbane Victoriana of the days of local enterprise. In the meaner streets one small shopkeeper after another puts up his shutters. The steamroller of monopoly capitalism crushes all before it. A revealing lament in a Paisleyite speech was that even devout Protestants would neglect the shop at the street corner and go into a city supermarket which employed Catholics. Apart from the Protestant lumpen-proletariat, the kindling for every riot over a century, Paisley seems to have expressed the discontent of middle-class sections oppressed by British monopoly capitalism and turned it against the Catholics and the democrats, the very sections with whom it is essential to have unity if the middle class is to survive. Captain O’Neill can thank Paisley for that while he utters his public reprobations.
Paisleyism does indeed illustrate the dilemma of Unionism in these latter days. The centuries-old Protestant ascendancy is beginning to shake. New social forces are demanding a new order. But Unionism is incapable of taking the simplest steps towards that order. Its leaders favour O’Neill; much of the rank and file favours Paisley. Divisions are not easily overcome.
The British labour movement should give every possible support and encouragement to the growth within ‘Northern Ireland’ of the unity of the anti-Unionist forces. These range from the Communists and Republicans on the left through the two Labour Parties to the Nationalists on the right. In Britain the now widespread demand for an impartial inquiry into the operation of the Westminster Act under which ‘Northern Ireland’ is governed, should be pressed vigorously as a means of re-opening the whole question of the future of this area. The final solution can only be achieved after the withdrawal of all British objections to the re-unification of Ireland.
*Irish Nationalists do not accept this designation since it denies the reality of Irish unity.