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A century of sectarianism — but the end is in sight

NICK WRIGHT assesses the fortunes of the ‘British’ statelet in the North of Ireland as unionism’s descent approaches terminal velocity

TODAY is the centenary of the partition of Ireland. This brutal act was accompanied — as became routine with Britain’s slow-burn crisis of imperial rule as its colonial subjects sought national liberation — with great violence.

How Ireland became a colony of the British crown is a story of savagery and theft. The Plantation of Ulster — the most Gaelic part of the island — was carried out in the reigns of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I (VI of Scotland), and the working out of this tragedy of avarice has reached the present crisis in the reign of the second Elizabeth.

The new settlers, who largely forced the existing occupants from their land, were mostly required to be English-speaking, Protestant and loyal to the crown. The invasion was not confined to the Northern province of Ulster but it was in this part of the Irish mainland where it was most thoroughly instituted by the occupation authorities.

This “ethnic cleansing” pioneered in the Irish plantations provided a template for the later (and more successful) genocidal onslaught on native Americans. In the late 18th century the descendants of colonists in Ulster were horrified to find Catholic communities developing in Armagh, Tyrone and Down and organised what can only be described as pogroms to force the Catholics from their tenancies.

The gangs responsible amalgamated in 1795 to form the Orange Order which was financed and encouraged by the Dublin Castle administration under the infamous Lord Castlereagh. Throughout the 19th century more people were killed in Orange rioting than in any nationalist action.

Ireland’s many rebellions and their violent suppression have entered legend, poetry and song. As proof that in this world nothing is completely new Elizabeth outsourced and privatised a violent land appropriation in the lands closest to Britain. This failed enterprise resulted in rebellion and the massacre of the local clans.

We should be clear, the present crisis is not that a few dozen youths from loyalist housing estates have resumed the local tradition of throwing stones and molotov cocktails at diverse targets including the barriers that separate them from their nationalist neighbours and the police.

The latter not only because young people everywhere are not much enamoured of the police but because this particular force has been wrenched from the control of the local Establishment and is now completely subordinated to political authority in this country and can no longer count on the partisan support of the loyalist tendency.

These young people are mobilised by loyalist gangsters on the basis that their “Protestant British” identity is under attack. It is a “British” identity that very few in Britain recognise or understand and not many like, least of all those in power who pull the puppet strings and whose contempt for the loyalist instruments of their meddling is unbounded.

The present crisis has come about because the British ruling class has largely overcome its Brexit divisions and has reached a compromise with the European Union. For the sake of its internal coherence and the viability of the Tories as the majority party in the Westminster Parliament it has put Ulster Unionism in its box.

The forlorn bid by Britain to chivvy the existing unionist parties and formations into providing “constructive” political leadership can have little effect and now Arlene Foster — who thought she could row this boat — has been ousted.

There is little future for a unionism confined to sectarian tub thumping which appeals to an identity politics that bears less and less relationship to the real world. As the material basis for unionist domination and working-class division itself disappears with the restructuring of capital, these forces are forced to survive without a guiding hand or powerful patronage.

Even so, these neanderthals, whose present obsession is Foster’s reluctance to fully support a policy of psychological pressure to “cure” young gay people, have rallied what seems to be a majority of the DUP activist base for a leadership election. It is a crowded but not impressive field.

The heavy engineering, shipyards, aircraft manufacture, and metal trades which once provided reasonably secure jobs and which were apportioned on a sectarian basis are much diminished. British capital has moved on to seek more profitable investments in a financialised global economy.

The main growth area in the northern economy has been in services and related construction which provides around three quarters of GDP, and since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) it has developed in tandem with the economy of the Irish republic. The public sector makes up nearly a third of the employment. The British government subvention is estimated at near £11 billion or near a quarter of GDP.

Part of the price of the compromise with the EU earlier this year was an agreement to treat Ireland as a single economic entity with its trade and customs regime dovetailed with that of the EU, and the institution of a new border that floats on the waves of the Irish sea rather than through the by-ways of Derry and Donegal, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh.

It is always a shock to foreigners like us visiting this beautiful land to discover just how foreign it is.

At the entrance to the small town where my in-laws live there flies a tattered union flag, sometimes displayed upside down in an unconscious indication of distress, the faded standard of one or other of the local loyalist militias and the more pristine flag of that other settler state, Israel.

And drive through the dreamy lanes of Fermanagh and you will find alternate settlements displaying forests of Palestinian or Israeli flags.

It is hard to imagine any village in Britain where these questions are regarded as essential indicators of identity. In the same way there is nothing about the political system in this north-eastern part of Ireland that finds an echo on our side of the Irish Sea save on the fascist fringes and the identitarian right.

But if the politics of the northern statelet still retain a surreal local flavour they are losing much of the continuity with past traditions and the stalemate that partition imposed on Ireland as a whole is dissolving.

This is the reason why elements in unionism are stoking sectarian divisions in order to rally their fragmenting constituency.

Ulster unionism has long been in a state of disintegration with the “big house” unionism of the Anglo-Irish landowning class given way to a rough-house regime of the more plebeian and small farmer DUP. This itself has lost the patronage of the British state which now finds the a new compromise with Sinn Fein a better basis for managing affairs.

The Good Friday Agreement which ended armed conflict between nationalists and the British state has succeeded in turning Sinn Fein into a cautious partner in the management of the joint and varied interests of British capital, the EU and the propertied classes of the Irish republic while at the community level cash disbursements of funds provided by Whitehall subsidise a network of “community” organisations that provide a largely compliant chorus to the various Stormont divas.

There is a real possibility that Sinn Fein will emerge as the biggest party and under the GFA will take the first minister job, leaving the deputy subordinate role to whoever comes second.

Foster had even more sectarian loyalist formations snapping at her heels while the largely middle-class and sotto voce unionism of the Alliance Party is attractive to a certain strata of middle class and professional elements with little taste for old time religion or politics.

Given the recent revelations that British secret police have infiltrated, spied upon and even directed various protest and campaign groups in Britain (including the Troops Out movement) and the proven track record of MI5 in proactive operations in Ireland it is reasonable to assume that its Hollywood command centre is host to all manner of dirty tricks operatives.

The present tensions give the British state a bargaining chip in the continuing negotiations with the EU. Even though the EU pays little regard to the state interests of the Irish republic — as the Irish found out in the Brexit negotiations — the short-term strategic interest the EU possesses in making Britain pay a price for Brexit — to deter others in the EU from contemplating secession — means London must lay hold of any tool at hand.

The changing metrics around Sinn Fein’s campaign for a border poll means that for the moment capitalist continuity is best served by  reducing expectations that such a poll — which is in the gift of the British government — is likely any time soon.

Dampening down the demand for Irish unity is a shared interest between the British state and the Irish establishment for whom a united Ireland would present great challenges to the manner in which this US and EU-dependent Irish elite alternates in office.

The British working class has no interest in maintaining partition and the vast mass of British people have very little sympathy for unionism as it actually exists.

British trade unions have a presence in both parts of Ireland and this is a problem in as far as it allows for a certain partitionist mentality to find a perch in trade union circles.

This is not confined to overtly loyalist elements who presently have enjoyed something of a revival in some union sectors but exists more as a sense that the routines of trade union business should proceed untroubled by the seismic shifts in the political geology of this bizarre entity and a sense that the national question can be indefinitely deferred.

Marx thought long and hard on the relationship between our working class and Ireland. He concluded: “It is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland.”

He went on: “The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. That is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.”

A hundred years after Ireland was divided it is time for working-class internationalism to take the form of a revival of solid support for Irish national unity and for British disengagement.

Nick Wright blogs at


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