Ireland and the politics of bigotry – Part Five

The compromise of the “Irish Free State” was too unsatisfactory to Irish Republicans and to the Irish in general, to survive. They wanted total independence. After years of sporadic violence and unrest, with the Treaty receiving some amendments, the 1921 Treaty was arbitrarily scrapped in 1948. John A. Costello, Taoiseach of The Inter Party Government, declared that, as of Easter Monday, 1949, The Irish Free State was to be known as The Republic of Ireland (Eire). [part 1]

The Republic of Ireland

The Republic was supposed to be totally independent of England. The British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, stoically accepted the situation. He even went further by deciding that the Republic would not be treated as a foreign country, but as a neighbour with a special relationship. This was supposed to make things easier for Ireland’s economy.

Not surprisingly, the Northern bigots were enraged and accused Attlee of surrendering to Eire. They were soon placated when he assured them that Ulster would not be reunified with the rest of Ireland without the consent of the parliament of Northern Ireland.

Two years later the Catholic hierarchy interfered in the affairs of Inter Party Government in a way that played right into the hands of the Orange Order. The Minister of Health, Dr. Noel Brown, a very humane and very capable man who had all but eradicated the scourge of TB from Ireland, tried to introduce the Mother and Child Scheme, giving free healthcare to all mothers, and children up to the age of 16.

The Irish Medical Association opposed the scheme because it would hit their pockets. On the other hand the Catholic hierarchy, led by the Archbishop of Dublin, opposed the scheme on the grounds that it was socialistic and anti-Christian. Perhaps they should have gone back to their bibles and read the parable about the Good Samaritan.

The Irish Government, more concerned about the sensitivities of the unelected Catholic hierarchy than they were about the welfare of those they governed, rejected the scheme. In so doing they strengthened the Orange argument that “Home rule is Rome rule”.

The newly declared Republic of Ireland was now officially master of its own fate. But many people in Ireland still resented the partitioning of Ireland, and the Ulster Protestants’ extreme victimisation of Irish Catholics within the Six Counties did nothing to heal the wounds inflicted upon the Irish by centuries of British Imperialism.

The blatant and sustained victimisation by the Orange Apartheid regime in Northern Ireland had many of the elements of a police state. So unjust was the Public Order Bill and the Special Powers Act, which empowered the police to search, arrest and detain without warrant or trial, that it disqualified the UK from being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This situation was as much the fault of Westminster as it was of Stormont. Westminster had allowed Ulster to remain “British”, albeit with its own parliament, therefore Westminster was ultimately responsible for turning a blind eye to the atrocious treatment handed out to the Catholics in the Six Counties.

Civil Rights Movements

In 1967 the non-sectarian Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland was founded in Co. Tyrone by liberal Protestants and Catholics working with trade unionists and housing groups. It was the forerunner of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Group (CRA). In Derry the James Connolly Society, the Derry Labour Party, the Young Socialists and other groups, all co-operating with the CRA, gave notice, in compliance with Six Counties Law, of a march through Derry on October 5th. But the staunchly Orange Minister for Home Affairs, William Craig, fearing that this was another attempt to unite Catholic and Protestant workers, declared a ban on all marches in Derry.

Undeterred, the CRA decided the march would go ahead. Three English MP’s attended as observers and the leaders of the march included Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Ivan Cooper, a Protestant member of the Derry Labour Party. When the 2,000 marchers reached the entrance to Derry at Craigavon Bridge they were confronted by police armed with revolvers and batons, accompanied by two special squads of riot police.

The police charged into the marchers with batons and riot shields, clubbing everyone in sight, and when the marchers turned to flee they found their way barred by even more police squads who had moved in behind them to prevent their escape. Beaten with batons, drenched by water cannon, the bloodied, battered, soaking-wet marchers were cleared off the streets.

Despite this setback the CRA was determined to build an Ulster-wide non-sectarian civil rights movement. The reforms sought by the CRA included the following:

  1. A fairer voting system, with electoral boundary changes, to prevent Protestants having disproportionate influence in councils and government.
  2. Legislation to end discrimination in employment.
  3. A fair system of housing allocation.
  4. The repeal of the Special Powers Act, withdrawal of the Public Order Bill and the disbandment of the B Special Police Force.

The B Specials, about 8,000 strong, was a half trained group of part-time volunteers recruited by the Orange Order, armed with hand guns and sub-machine guns, which they kept at home. These were undisciplined Orange thugs with a license to kill. The British government in Westminster was well aware of the situation, but to its shame, allowed it to go on.

The growing Civil Rights movement gained popularity and on 9th October 1968, students from Queens University, Belfast, demonstrated in support of the CRA. Police had to keep the students and an extreme Protestant group from clashing. Following the demonstration the students, along with lecturers and sympathisers, held a meeting from which the People’s Democracy was formed. Its leaders included the fiery Bernadette Devlin.

The mood of revolt was spreading. Businessman John Hume formed the Derry Citizen’s Action Committee which held a sit-down demonstration on October 19th followed by a march on November 2nd. Seething at this growing Catholic and Protestant unity the Minister for Home Affairs again slapped a ban on the march and moved riot police into Derry. But 15,000 marchers turned up, outnumbering the astonished police and, thanks to Hume’s diplomatic efforts, the march went on unhindered.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Unionist leaders announced some reforms. Housing allocation would be taken out of the control of local councillors and replaced with a fairer system, and an ombudsman would deal with complaints against government and local councils. The Derry Corporation would be suspended and replaced by a Development Commission with more equal representation. The company vote, whereby businessmen were entitled to a special vote at local elections, would be abolished, and the Special Powers Act would later be reviewed.

The Unionist Government hoped these concessions would put an end to Civil Rights activity. But the Unionists were slow to put their promises into action and meanwhile the left-wing People’s Democracy was gaining support throughout the six counties, despite attempts by Protestant extremists to break up their meetings by force.

Enter Ian Paisley

Described by historian Peter Beresford Ellis as a nightmarish cross between Elmer Gantry and Benito Mussolini, his name is synonymous with religious bigotry and intolerance. The so-called Reverend Ian Richard Kyle Paisley got his honorary doctorate from the Bob Jones University of California, a right-wing racist institution. He persuaded his father, a Baptist Minister, to ordain him. Then, in 1951, he started his own Free Presbyterian Church and made himself Moderator. The ultimate bigot, his poisonous anti-Catholic rhetoric beggars belief:

“Through Popery the Devil has shut up the way to our inheritance. Priestcraft, superstition and papalism with all their attendant vices of murder, theft, immorality, lust and incest, blocked the way to the land of gospel liberty”. (Quoted from his own paper, the Protestant Telegraph, 1967.)

To counteract the People’s Democracy and the CRA, Paisley formed the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee and campaigned for the removal of Unionist leader Terence O’Neil, whom he considered too conciliatory towards the Catholics. Paisley and his followers entered Armagh armed with clubs and weapons, intent on stopping a CRA march, but they were stopped by police who confiscated their revolvers. Paisley was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and the march went on without any major incident.

But the Civil Rights marchers in January 1969 were not so fortunate. The Government was aware that elements in the Civil Rights movement, especially the People’s Democracy, were aspiring to build a socialist society, and that was no more acceptable to the right-wing Ulster Unionists than it was to the Catholic hierarchy in the Irish Republic. Heading towards Derry, they were attacked as they arrived at the Burntollet Bridge; many of their attackers were members of the B Specials.

The police, who knew the ambush would take place, stood by and watched men, women and young girls and boys being kicked unconscious. When survivors of the attack got into Derry and attempted to reach City Hall they were again attacked by Protestant gangs. Derry Catholics coming to the rescue of the marchers were attacked by the police, who showed their true loyalties by forcing the Catholics to retreat and barricade themselves in the Bogside area.

Northern Ireland was becoming a cauldron of violence, murder and mayhem. Despite everything some of the marchers reached their destination, where they received a rousing welcome from a huge, cheering crowd in Guildhall Square. The police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to give them their official title, were enraged by the fact that some of the marchers had succeeded. That night, drunk and violent, they went berserk. Rampaging through the Catholic Bogside area, they smashed windows, kicked in doors, destroyed property and beat anyone who got in their way in a night of terror that rivalled the brutality of the Nazi Brown-shirts.

More Civil Rights marches were held. More attacks and violence, and even bombings took place all over the Six Counties. These were blamed on the IRA but later found to be the work of Loyalist paramilitaries. The ranting and political agitation of Paisley added insane background music to Ulster’s sickening orchestrated violence. It was apparent that the armed Protestant extremists, aided by the RUC and the B Specials, were intent on mass murder, amounting to the genocidal removal of every last Catholic from the Province of Ulster.

The British Army

“…there was no shadow of doubt that without the army, the Protestants would have overwhelmed the Catholic areas… and the police would have done little to stop them”. (Max Hastings).

The British army was sent to the North. The troops moved in and placed themselves between the Catholic and Protestant areas in Derry, Belfast and other parts of the Six Counties. There is no doubt that the army’s arrival prevented the immediate bloody massacre of hundreds or even thousands of Northern Ireland’s Catholics and it was welcomed by Catholics at first. But what must never be forgotten is that the British army was sent to the North, not to defend the Catholic population but to uphold the interests of British imperialism, as subsequent events demonstrated. It is sufficient to recall the behaviour of the SAS, the murdering of protestors by the Paras on January 30th, 1972, (Bloody Sunday), internment, the shoot to kill policy and the death of the hunger strikers to underline this point.

These are only the more infamous incidents in the most terrible chapter in Ireland’s recent history. Today, after thirty years of pointless violence has claimed over three thousand lives, both sides are exhausted by this terrible struggle. It is not in the interests of the working class to return to that bloody morass. But the question that must be addressed is: how is it possible to exorcise the demons of religious sectarianism and achieve peaceful co-existence and social progress?

The answer to this burning question can never be provided by the capitalists and their politicians. Nor can it be provided by the Nationalists of either side. It was given long ago by Connolly and Larkin. Only class politics can cut across the sectarian madness and unite the working class on the basis of common struggle.

We fervently hope that innocent ordinary working-class people will never again have to endure the suffering and grief that was inflicted upon them for so long. But there is no room for complacency. It cannot be denied that there still exist some very bigoted and backward looking elements on both sides of the religious divide in the Six Counties.

Above all, it will never be possible to eradicate friction and rivalry between Catholics and Protestants as long as a chronic shortage of jobs and homes gives rise to competition between working people for the most basic means of existence. This is the poisonous soil upon which arises the baneful fruit of racism and sectarian strife.

The religious question in Scotland

Religious bigotry is not unfortunately confined to Northern Ireland. It also exists in Scotland. It is most evident in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, but it also arises, although less intensely in towns east and north of this area.

The Orange Order was first introduced into Scotland by soldiers who had fought alongside the Orange Yeomanry in Ireland to suppress the Protestant-led rebellion of 1798, but the real bigotry and religious bitterness did not take hold until a later date. Although Scotland was very much a Protestant country, the Scots in general were very tolerant and even sympathetic towards the many thousands of hungry, poverty-stricken Irish Catholics who flooded into Glasgow and the West as a consequence of the terrible famine of 1845-1850.

Many of the immigrants from Belfast in the years that followed were shipyard workers. The Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast were one of the world’s leading ship-builders. Therefore many of these immigrants were former shipyard workers who naturally settled in the Govan area of Glasgow, where they went to work in the Clyde shipyards.

As everywhere else, football was the chief passion of the workers, and the nearest football team was Glasgow Rangers, situated at Ibrox. The staunchly Orange shipyard workers of Northern Ireland supported the local team and gradually gained influence on the management board of Rangers, turning Ibrox into an Orange-ruled bastion of bigotry.

It was Orangeism that turned each Celtic-Rangers match into a focus of religious angst. It is true that Glasgow Celtic has strong Catholic origins but, unlike Rangers, it never operated a religious apartheid system. Some of Celtic’s best players were Protestant, as indeed was their legendary manager Jock Stein. Rangers, on the other hand, refused to sign Catholic players for many years, until circumstances forced them to change this deplorable policy.

Both teams profited greatly from their bigotry-driven support among their respective fans. Both sides were suspicious of the number of cup final games that ended in a draw, necessitating a replay and more money. The suspicion that these draws were “fixed” earned these matches the title of “old firm” games.

Go to a Rangers-Celtic match these days and you will observe an atmosphere like nothing any other fixture can produce. It is not just rivalry; it is enmity and hatred that creates this atmosphere. It is as if both groups of supporters are determined to relive the Battle of the Boyne in their own minds.

Recent incidents, such as the threats to Celtic’s manager, only exacerbate the problem, but the fact remains that Rangers-Celtic games help to keep bigotry on the boil and that same bigotry helps to keep the money coming in for both teams. One can’t help thinking that if bigotry cost the teams money, rather than boosting their profits, more would be done to eradicate it.

[To be continued...]