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Review: Partition economics today

The State of Northern Ireland & the Democratic Deficit: Between Sectarianism & Neo-Liberalism, Glasgow 2018, £14.95.

Paul Stewart, Tommy McKearney, Gearoid O Machail, Patricia Campbell & Brian Garvey,

Reviewed By D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

25 August 2019

For Ireland, the present mess in Britain and the likelihood that it will spread across the water that separates the islands is beginning to produce some compensatory benefits. It is forcing people to consider in detail the actual situation in this country particularly as regards its partition.

Very recently there appeared a discussion paper, The Politics of a Northern Ireland Border Poll by Seamus McGuinness and Adele Bergin, which demolishes the arguments of the rulers of the republic against Irish unity. Before this (but read by this reviewer after it) came this work. With five authors, it provokes the crack about a camel being a horse designed by a committee but inspires, too, the considered response that the camel is, after all, an animal with a number of valuable qualities that the horse does not possess.

Certainly, the work has clear virtues. It collects an indispensible amount of information about Northern Ireland’s economy and social services, material evidence for the failure of the province’ economy. Moreover, it issues a challenge to the peace process in its admission ‘in the north, history and contemporary realities taken to the fore, they may presuppose far-reaching and – we hesitate to use the word – far-reaching change.’ A bit mealy-mouthed, but true.

The analysis is weakened by two failures. In the first place, there is no perspective given as to how the economy of what is now the post-industrial six county area is to develop after the revolution. The writer remembers reading an article written in the fifties by a former senior Stormont civil servant in which he poured scorn on a suggestion that, in a united Ireland, Harland and Wolff would keep in business building fishing boats. Today such orders would be welcomed. Sadly no vision of any such option is given here.

The reason for this can be seen in the second failure. It has two aspects, temporal and geographical. Temporally, it considers the problems it tackles, particularly that of sectarianism, only in the context of the partition province. Geographically, too, its perspective is limited to Northern Ireland with some mention of the connection with Britain, but hardly any of its relationship with the neighbouring state on this island.

On this restricted basis, it is not possible to make an accurate analysis. The one given here sees the constant problem as being one of sectarianism, changing its nature in the period after 1968 from straight discrimination to one of mutual sectarianisms operating neo-liberal policies.

In fact, of course, Irish religious sectarianism precedes Northern Ireland and extends beyond it.

Moreover the problem is not one of opposing religions but of one minority religion claiming hegemony over the majority. After the reformation and the failure of Protestant plantation outside Ulster, the Protestants of the established Church made it clear to Britain that the island might be run on a religious rather than a national colonial basis. Penal laws were enforced against Catholics and, to a lesser extent against Dissenters. This came to be dignified as Ascendancy. That period ended as Ireland industrialised slowly. Catholics and Dissenters began to seek rights equal to those of the Anglicans, and even an independent republic. The colonial state was able to crush this, uniting many Protestants, established and disestablished behind the British army as their protector. Their victory was followed by the defeat of the textile workers’ unions. The Orange societies, managed by landlords and increasingly by manufacturers, became the chief organization for plebian Protestants, particularly in Ulster. They opposed the Catholics organised for emancipation and independence. It had little effect outside Ulster: in the other provinces the Protestant population was too great. However, in the north, an industrial expansion that depended on sectarian division created the basis for a new Ascendancy.

By 1921, a strengthened Irish national bourgeoisie was able to win a form of independent state for twenty-six counties. Offering little to win the plebian Ulster Protestants, they were unable to overcome the Ascendancy backed by the colonial power. These were enshrined in a six county provincial jurisdiction until the thirty year troubles. Today the economic weakness of the Ascendancy makes it necessary for Britain to bring in the catholic bourgeoisie to reinforce its support, with itself acting as Bonaparte doling out the trickle of subventions allowed by neo-liberalism. This strategy is unlikely to last as long as any of its predecessors.

This leads to certain conclusions. In the first place, Britain does perceive that it has real strategic interests in Ireland. These interests are less than they were, but Northern Ireland’s closeness to Scotland across the narrowest and shallowest stretch of water separating the two islands is seen as a threat to be neutralized by occupation. (It would be theoretically possible to make Ireland secure for British interests by a Treaty promising that it would not allow it to be used against them. This does not seem to have occurred to the old colonial metropolis.) Secondly, though the authors maintain that the factor inhibiting Protestant working class political progress is its sense of British nationhood, the reality is less than this but more sordid. Protestant ascendancy is still central to the Unionist agenda, even though the desire is increasingly utopian. That this is so can be seen in the comparative failure of milder forms of political unionism compared to the Democratic Unionist Party.

The stated aspirations of that party have failed consistently to be achieved. Going back through its history, its cry of ‘no surrender’ on any issue has been a signal for future retreat. Yet its electoral support has grown against more realistic bodies. This would seem to be because, whatever about the connection with Britain, its anti-Catholic, anti-Irish credentials are impeccable. The third point is that the Ulster sectarian problem cannot be resolved on a six county basis alone. Only a mass mobilization of the workers of all Ireland organized behind a secular socialist programme can provide the cure. Utopian? Perhaps it is, but, as of now, it is less utopian than other ideas. Restoring Protestant ascendancy cannot be imagined without far greater expenditure by a reluctant Britain, as well as greater disturbances. Reform of the six county unit might avoid disturbance (though this is doubtful): it is likely to be as costly. The reform programme that is needed is great enough to require revolution to achieve it. And revolution will pose the issue of partition.

Objectively, the problems of Northern Ireland challenge the province’ existence as an entity. Subjectively, the will has to be found to make such a challenge in an intelligent political, that is socialist manner.

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