Return to books menu

Chapter Eight

Partition: stability at a price

James Connolly saw partition as ushering in; "a carnival of reaction". He was proved right. Religious sectarianism was a common feature of the major British industrial cities, partially overcome by the Labour movement.  The North went from a state within which sectarianism was a major force to becoming a sectarian state - actually defined by counting the Protestants and operated by assigning a lesser level of citizenship to Catholics. To make things worse, to reach economic viability the border was drawn as widely as possible and included two nationalist counties.  The minority was so large that it could only remain a minority through the most open and aggressive discrimination and oppression. As the unionists openly boasted; "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people." Discrimination, an armed protestant militia, the special powers act and the economic, military and political support of the British state instituted a permanent state of siege.

In Dublin the 1916 rising saw a rise in support for nationalism and growing working class and republican militancy throughout the war of independence.  The weakness of the left and the reformism of the union leaders led to a unification of the classes in Sinn Fein, with reformist labour taking a back seat. The treaty with the British divided nationalism into constitutional and revolutionary camps.

The civil war and the rise of a pro-treaty government was a counterrevolution that saw the political inheritors of the Irish Parliamentary Party gain power.  How to explain the new state? The major element was the fact that the British did not leave. They held and controlled military bases at the ports and a number of sectors of the Irish economy. The impoverished agrarian society that emerged centred around export to the British market. The role of the Catholic Church was greatly amplified, converting the new society into a confessional state, but although this was a convenient ideological crutch for the administration, it also had a material base because of the extreme poverty of the new society outside the elite. The state simply could not afford a welfare system and education and health were outsourced to the church.

The outcome is probably best understood by the slew of recent reports on Magdalene laundries, Industrial schools and Mother and Baby homes.  The care of the poor was handed over to the Catholic Church, where they were treated with cruelty, coerced by religious dogma and by sexual repression and misogyny.

The republican wing of the independence movement came to power in 1932 as the Fiánna Fail party under Eamon de Valera. They began the experiment of attempting to build an independent Irish economy, but did not challenge the property relations that protected British capital and were unable to achieve the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for an independent economy.

The country remained in poverty. The migrant boats remained full. The Church had an iron grip. However, the generally democratic element of the aspiration for independence produced a loyalty to the state and gave it a long-term stability.

The Whitaker report of 1958 essentially saw the abandonment of the nationalist economic project. Influx of transnational capital saw a boom in the early 60s followed by stagnation and decay in the 70s and 89s.

Access to the European market and European bank loans alongside a later influx of US capital led to the “Celtic Tiger” boom and then to the credit crunch and national bankruptcy. Ireland today remains deeply indebted and operates as a tax haven. Wealth has accumulated in the hands of a comprador capitalist class, as in the past public services are outsourced, leading to the intervention of vulture funds in the Irish housing market and an overwhelming housing crisis. Heath remains a source of conflict, with plans to hand the national maternity hospital to a private company based on the church.

The trajectory of the two states was quite different.  The sectarian Northern state, through special powers acts and an armed militia became an area of absolute repression. However, it had seized a large tract of nationalist ground in order to give it the area to survive as an economic entity. The nationalist population growth rate was somewhat higher than the Protestant, so discrimination and repression had to be high enough to force a surplus of nationalists out of the state. The militarised state was able to easily suppress "Operation Harvest", an IRA border campaign in the 50s. The unionists were constantly worried about the Protestant working class breaking towards Labour, but that party was usually neutral on the national question or actively pro union and never presented a serious threat.

Yet the reactionary nature of the state impacted all workers. Protestant workers had higher employment rates and greater access to skilled jobs, but wage rates were at the very bottom of UK rates. Housing was abysmal and the unionists fought tooth and nail against health and social reforms from Britain.

The state was extremely fragile, with preservation of sectarian privileges ranking over other considerations.  This led to a deformation of the economy, with the West of the province deprived of higher education, government offices, and transport links.

When the traditional industries began to decline Stormont was given a subvention by Westminster to restructure the economy.  The obvious steps were transport and infrastructure links to Derry and, more importantly, to Dublin. Instead, a motorway was built to a new town, Craigavon. Even today it's hard to find this metropolis or document its role in economic development.

Many young unionists were frustrated by the closed society they lived in and called for modernisation, but the right wing had begun to mobilise through the Ulster Volunteer Force and through Paisleyism. A 1965 meeting between Unionist leader O'Neill and Taoiseach Sean Lemass led to a Paisleyite attack on the delegation and the gradual erosion of the O'Neill leadership.

The long period of the troubles was marked by British military repression and by a constant movement to the right by unionism alongside its fragmentation and decay, by the decay of the imperial market and the engineering and shipbuilding base on which the local economy rested. Ironically the IRA threat meant state investment in security and an unwillingness to dismantle the large public sector counteracted industrial decline to some extent.

The settlement eventually crafted by the British gave nationalists entry into the local administration but it retained partition and the sectarian base on which it rested. At one level it continues to be unstable as the unionists continue to resist accommodation with nationalists and the administration frequently collapses. On the other hand, the Good Friday Agreement was a stunning defeat for revolutionary nationalists and socialists. Opposition to imperialism has been replaced by belief in cultural reconciliation, in a progressive role for the British and US and in a culture of social partnership that espouses unity of capital and labour. There is a great deal of poverty and want, but expressing these fully may require a new generation and the decay of the currents leading Sinn Fein and the trade union bureaucracy.

<<<Chapter Seven: Unionism

Return to top of page