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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland:
Why we fight for working class unity

(October 1997)

From The Socialist [UK], 10 October 1997.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Northern Ireland’s political parties, now gathered around the talks table at Stormont, have been given until next May to reach an agreed settlement.

This is a tall order; the same parties, minus Sinn Fein, took over a year to agree an agenda for the talks. The session which ended in agreement in September was the opening plenary which began in June 1996 and was expected to complete its business before that summer’s recess.

While it cannot be ruled out that these talks may eventually produce a deal on some future form of government, it is absolutely ruled out that this will provide a real or lasting solution to the conflict.

The problem in Northern Ireland is not primarily that rival sectarian politicians do not agree. The real problem is the division within society which breeds these politicians.

The talks will proceed against a backcloth of unprecedented levels of sectarian division and polarisation. Protestants and Catholics are separated not just by where they worship, but by where they live, how they vote and increasingly in their cultural identity also.

The talks are not about over-coming these divisions, but about cementing them in some new administrative arrangement. The most influential parties sitting round the table all have a vested interest in reinforcing the sectarian division, not in bridging it.

A real solution means over-coming the sectarian divide which segregates working-class people into two distinct camps. Such a solution will never come from the politicians at the top. It will have to be built from the bottom up, beginning in the working-class communities, building bridges between these communities and advancing the common interests of Catholic and Protestant workers.

This will not be in line with what the politicians are doing in the talks or in the communities. In reality any attempt to establish unity between Catholic and Protestant workers would quickly come into conflict with the major parties, unionist and nationalist, and with their efforts to keep people divided.


In order to challenge sectarianism it is necessary to understand how it arose and how it attained its grip. The origins of today’s conflict are in the British ruling class’s “divide and rule” policies stretching back over centuries, as they tried to maintain their grip on Ireland.

In 1920–21 the British ruling class carried through the partition of Ireland, creating the present Northern Ireland state and granting a form of independence to the rest of the island. They did this because they feared that the independence struggle, being carried on the shadow of the Russian Revolution, would overspill towards socialist revolution in Ireland.

Partition succeeded in dividing the working class and derailing the movement of strikes, occupations and ‘soviets’ then underway. The British leaned on the reactionary landlords and capitalists who led the unionist movement in the northern counties of Ireland.

But they were also aided by the nationalist movement’s leaders who declared that the “class struggle must wait”. By removing the social content – the question of who owns the factories and the land – from the independence struggle they narrowed its appeal and alienated the Protestant working class in the north who had no wish to swap one British set of capitalists and exploiters with another Irish set.

Partition created two sectarian states. The northern state, founded on discrimination and coercion, was unacceptable to its large Catholic minority. The southern state, backward, poverty-ridden and seen as dominated by the Catholic church, repelled Protestants.

This left a problem which remains insoluble on the basis of the present economic system. 76 years on, the problem is more intractable, more difficult, than ever. For the Catholic working class the northern state has meant unionist discrimination, military repression and unrelieved poverty. The most recent disputes over Orange parades, especially over the Garvaghy Road march, have left Catholics, including the middle class, further alienated from the state. A powerful and assertive nationalism has developed as Catholics are now less prepared to accept the present state and more focused on eventual reunification.

Protestants, on the other hand, look on the idea of a united Ireland with anger and dread. The boom in the Irish economy and the modernisation and secularisation which has taken place have not softened this hostility.

They correctly see a corrupt state based on inequality, mass unemployment and injustice. The feeling of Protestants that they would be a powerless minority in an all-Ireland state, and would suffer discrimination and persecution, has been added to by the recent rise of nationalism and by confrontations over parades. The calls for rerouting are widely seen as the thin end of a nationalist wedge.

Two minorities

Increasingly the problem is becoming one of two minorities, a Catholic minority in the north, and a Protestant community who increasingly feel themselves a besieged minority in Ireland as a whole.

There is no possibility of reconciling these differences under capitalism. For several decades the British ruling class would have preferred to withdraw, recognising that whatever benefits they obtained from partition 70 years ago no longer apply. But withdrawal and attempted reunification would mean a Protestant revolt, civil war and a Bosnian outcome.

On the other hand the status quo cannot be indefinitely maintained. So the British and Irish governments hope that the talks will produce a workable compromise which would bring the paramilitary representatives in from the cold and create some stability.

Even if the talks reach agreement – and there are huge obstacles to this – it would be on the basis of unionists reassuring Protestants that the agreement makes the union safe, while nationalists would try to pacify their supporters by arguing that it is a step on the road to a united Ireland. This would be a sure recipe for future conflict.

The choice is ultimately stark. The various capitalist ’solutions’ are different routes, at varying tempos, to civil war and repartition. Of there can be a socialist solution built through the unity in struggle of Catholic and Protestant workers. But can this unity be built?

Class movement

One lesson of Irish history is that when the national question is separated from the struggle for social change the result is sectarian division. But when social issues come to the fore it has been possible to build a unity of the oppressed, Catholic and Protestant.

No such unity is possible if the choice on offer is to “unite” under the Union Jack or “unite” under the tricolour. The real answer is to build a united class movement which could put the struggle for a decent society first and the issue of where a line is drawn on the map second.

Although the sectarian divide has widened the potential for class unity still exists. The problems of poverty, low pay, unemployment, declining services are shared by Protestant and Catholic workers. Catholic areas still suffer higher unemployment, but otherwise the conditions of life or Catholic and Protestant workers are fundamentally the same.

There are genuine cross-community organisations which bring people from different backgrounds together. Most importantly most workplaces are still mixed. As a result all .the major trade unions, except for two teachers’ unions, have a mixed membership. And the trade unions, despite a weak leadership, still have around 200,000 members.

To find a way forward this basic unity will have to be built into a united movement capable of campaigning on all the problems which working-class people face. This means taking up the social issues, but also such issues as sectarian intimidation, policing, the state’s repressive role, and the attempts by paramilitaries on both sides to exercise physical control over communities.

Such a movement would need a political voice to challenge the dominant right-wing and sectarian parties. A new party based on the common interests of working class people urgently needs to be built.

New struggles

Placing the struggle for a decent society to the forefront does not mean ignoring the national question. Rather it allows the national question to be approached in a way which would unite, not divide the working class.

A united workers’ movement fighting for a socialist society in the north could link up with similar working-class struggles in the south and in Britain. When the Montupet workers were on strike in Belfast this year they visited the Liverpool dockers, the Glacier workers who had earlier occupied their plant in Glasgow, and also went to workplaces in Dublin, Waterford and other parts of the south.

It is out of such struggles – and the links established through them – that real class unity in Northern Ireland, in Britain and the south can be rebuilt.

As part of a common workers’ movement throughout these islands a new working class party in Northern Ireland could reject all capitalist solutions and put forward a socialist solution – the establishment of a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

In the present polarised situation it is very hard to convince people in Northern Ireland that this can be done. But the building of a united class movement remains the only alternative to a slide towards repartition. At the moment it is a matter of winning individuals to this idea, but as things change new opportunities will open up. It will be vital to have an organised socialist force on the ground to see that these opportunities are taken.

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