Return to books menu

Chapter Nine

Partition stumbles

It is difficult to communicate how regressive the northern statelet was.

Internment without trial was a tool in the arsenal of the state, as was assassination. It was impossible to tell where the state left off and the Protestant militia began. Inquests could be banned and the Special Powers Act had a final clause allowing the minister of home affairs to declare illegal anything he had not thought to include in the act.

Assembly of more than three people could be declared illegal.

The period was summed up in the Irish News the nationalist paper, in an ironic headline. To paraphrase: the midnight knock was heard in many areas, but luckily nothing worse than internment was contemplated (there were mass arrests but no-one assassinated).

But repression was not enough. The large Catholic minority could not be allowed to increase and that meant ferocious job discrimination and a steady flow of nationalist workers to the migrant boats.

Unionist premier Basil Brooke;
‘had not a Roman Catholic about his place’... 'He would appeal therefore, wherever possible, to employ good protestant lads and lassies.’

State repression and denial of jobs was linked to voter suppression in council elections and consequent denial of council housing, as this was tied to the vote.

It is important to have a detailed picture of the sectarian state. The Catholic Church, once it had secured control of Catholic education, were satisfied and the Catholic middle class were offered some deference and class privilege while excluded from any extensive political power.

Within the unionist community there was a great deal of disdain for the working class and a savage repression. A Lundy or Rotten Prod was considered a greater danger than the nationalists and the Orange Order and the Twelfth of July demonstrations were used to ensure that everyone in the unionist communities publicly expressed their loyalty to the state. Papers released later show a great deal of worry about the local Labour movement, but in the event a ritual accusation of disloyalty was enough to send the labourites into panic, partly explained by the impunity of violent loyalist gangs.

In the early 60s the old industrial base was beginning to decay and there was a discussion of modernisation.  This began within unionism. Many found the old order stultifying, there was a brain drain from the universities and some understanding that the system would have to be modified.

It would have been possible to extend infrastructure towards Derry in the West or build a motorway to Dublin in the South and the fact that unionism was unable to take these rational steps was a clear sign of stasis and decay.  Economic modernisation was seen as an existential threat to unionism and instead a motorway was built towards the imaginary city of Craigavon. Talks attempting to expand trade with Dublin and dialogue with the most reactionary elements of Catholicism in the North as a gesture of reconciliation led to violent Paisleyite demonstrations and a revolt against even the mildest of changes.

An alliance of trade unionists, nationalists and moderate unionists, supported by a left section in the British Labour party, pressed for reform - for British rights in a British state. The civil rights movement met with the same response as the Dublin talks had; denial linked to loyalist and state violence. In 1966, when the reform movement was still being born, the Ulster Volunteer Force killed a Protestant pensioner and two Catholic civilians. In 1969 they carried out a false flag operation by bombing the Silent Valley reservoir, meant to convince unionists that the new Civil Rights Movement was an IRA front.

Attempts to use paramilitary and state violence failed.  The uprising was simply too big. Eventually the British state stepped in with military force through Operation Banner, designed to offer specific changes and holding out the prospect of a place for nationalists within the political system, but with the overall goal of "aiding the civil power" and ensuring that the partitioned state survived.

What is not fully understood is that that military intervention led to the defeat of the Civil Rights Movement. Torture, internment, assassination, collusion with loyalism and massacre, reinforced by the division between revolution and reform within the CRM, led to the reformist wing withdrawing.  Rather than leading to a lull, the violence intensified as revolutionary nationalists retained mass support and led a mass campaign and military action to force the expulsion of the British.

It is still denied that that struggle in its turn was defeated - in fact defeated so comprehensively that the former poachers of the IRA leadership became gamekeepers in the new partition.

Over decades the mass character of the Republican movement declined and their military capacity was eroded.

The end phase of that struggle was the hunger strikes of the 1980s. The IRA abandoned the failed military strategy and took over a spontaneous movement supporting the prisoners.  The movement expanded to build a mass anti-imperialist current across Ireland with a large international movement in solidarity, but was not sufficient to defeat the British and it was not until long after the deaths of the prisoners that it became clear that the republican leadership had simultaneously been running a diplomatic track through the Catholic church and the Dublin government that led out their road to surrender.

The key to that defeat was focused in the Southern state. The struggle in the North posed a problem for the Irish state.  The ideological link between the ruling class and the workers was nationalism.  In theory everyone stood behind the aspiration for a United Ireland.  In practice the Dublin government collaborated with the British, ignored British crimes and atrocities in its own jurisdiction and unleashed state terror against republicans.

The hunger strikes by republican prisoners led to an electoral intervention by their supporters in the 26-country state. Nine hunger strikers were nominated for the Dáil.  They attracted significant support and two were elected.

Irish capitalism was determined that the national question be buried for good and The New Ireland Forum of 1983/84 led the groundwork for a settlement designed to renounce the claim for Irish unity and advance a power sharing administration in the North. This in turn led to new talks with Britain summed up by the Downing Street declaration. The republicans were given an opportunity to support the new initiative or face much greater pressure from both governments.

When they climbed aboard, the fight against partition for their generation was over. A new partition, shaped by Britain and not substantially different from proposals offering the Catholic middle class political representation in a northern administration that were advanced at the start of the civil rights period, was installed.

<<<Chapter Eight: Partition: stability at a price

Return to top of page