After 1945, British imperialism had a different agenda for Northern Ireland. Ireland had been partitioned in 1920 to keep hold of the profitable industries of the North, as well as the important military bases that protected Britain's western flanks. More importantly however, Partition served to act as a break on the growing social revolution that accompanied the struggle for national liberation in Ireland, which had included land and factory seizures by the workers.
None of these factors existed after 1945. The new Cold War meant Britain's "enemies" were firmly in the East. Britain meanwhile settled down to a period of protracted boom, while the former Free state under De Valera was stabilised as a safe capitalist satellite ripe for economic exploitation by Britain, as of old. This was consolidated by the linking of the London and Dublin Stock Exchanges in 1963 and the signing of the Fair Trade Agreement between the two states in 1964. By 1968 the Irish Republic was the fifth largest importer of British goods.
British and Irish capitalism envisaged a smooth, gradual progress towards the establishment of a united Ireland, in which Britain would be the dominant economic partner. The bosses wished for a protracted period of stability in which to maximise profits. Indeed, when the divided trade unions united to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 1959 (see last issue), while this provoked fierce opposition from the Stormont government, the trade unions did receive one important voice of support... from the British Association of Manufacturers!
Pressure from British capitalism to quietly resolve the historic legacy of Partition was typified by the historic talks between the Irish Taosiach Lemus and the Leader of the Stormont government, O'Neill. in 1965.
This belief that Ireland would quietly resolve its differences explains the appalling inaction by successive Labour governments. The election victories of 1945 and 1964 had presented opportunities to resolve the 'Irish Question'. Yet the Labour governments ignored the timebomb ticking under their feet. The NILP were allowed a seat on Labour's NEC and any 'Irish Questions' that arose were forwarded to that delegate and quietly forgotten.
But this comfortable acquiescence was illusionary. Beneath the surface enormous pressures were building up, as anger grew at the reactionary legacy left behind by Partition. The Orange bosses had been given free reign to create an undemocratic regime, en par with the reactionary southern states of the USA.
Through disenfranchisement - which debarred 300,000 workers, mainly but not exclusively Catholics - and blatant gerrymandering, the Unionists ensured their 'majorities' and guaranteed control of the northern Ireland state machine. The 'ascendancy' of Protestant rule was given concrete form.
The 1961 Census illustrates the appalling discriminatory nature of the regime:
- In the elections to Northern Ireland's ruling Stormont government, although there was adult suffrage, there was also a second vote for the statelet's Universities (13,763 votes), and a second vote for businesses (12,663 votes). as Catholics were effectively banned from both higher education and commerce, this gave the Unionists an extra 26,426 votes before the polls even opened. thus Antrim, whose population included 66,929 Catholics, saw all seven seats go to the Unionists!
- In local government the discrimination was even more blatant. Not only was there a second vote for businesses (an extra 6467 votes) and then a third vote for company premises (a further 3,894 votes), there was no adult suffrage - the vote went only to householders whose property was worth £10 or over. This effectively debarred most Catholics whose impoverished conditions, widespread unemployment or low paid jobs kept them tied to rented accommodation. It also debarred many low paid Protestants, reflecting the Orange bosses historic fear of a return to independent Labour parties, that Protestant workers had established following the Belfast General Strike of 1919.
- All this was compounded by blatant gerrymandering of constituency borders. Derry provided the most stark example of this: in 1961 the city had a population of 30,049 Catholics and 17,325 Protestants. When the discriminatory electoral rules were applied, Catholics were left with 14,325 votes and the Protestants with 9,235. Even though the Catholics still maintained a majority, this was further undermined by gerrymandering of the ward boundaries - giving the Unionists 12 seats and the Catholics only 8!
Control of Stormont and local government structures meant Catholics were severely discriminated against in the allocation of public housing. There was also widescale discrimination in the allocation of jobs - the infamous joke of the time was that when Catholic workers were asked the million dollar question, during job interviews, about their religion, they would reply that they were "an atheist" - often provoking the response: "yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"
However, by the late 1960s, capitalism - and Stalinism - internationally was undergoing convulsions. Huge forces were on the move around the world. Throughout the West, students championed the national liberation struggle in Vietnam; workers fought the tanks of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia, while the European ruling class were rocked by the General Strike in France in 1968.
And the world's gaze fell on the Southern states of the USA, where black workers were fighting for civil rights. This had an enormous effect on Northern Ireland workers. The media presented the US civil rights movement as some far away aberration. Yet equal levels of discrimination existed in Britain's very own backyard.
Movements began in Northern Ireland to demand equality. Significantly, workers first moved through their traditional organisations - in this case the Northern Ireland Labour Party, despite all its betrayals and pro-Unionist sectarianism of the past.
For most of the post war period, the NILP had continued its pro-Unionist stance, even as late as 1964 voting with extreme Loyalists not to allow local authority playgrounds to open on Sundays, in order to "protect the Sabbath!"
But by the mid 1960s the NILP leadership began to face mounting pressure from below from two fronts; from the workers organised in the 23 trade unions that remained affiliated to the NILP, and from the growing band of young activists, based around the increasingly politicised student campuses and campaigns to reform the housing allocation laws.
Thus by 1965 the NILP issued its first call for equal rights. The following year, in September 1966, the NILP issued a joint memorandum with the ICTU, calling directly for one person, one vote and an end to gerrymandering.
These public stances had an enormous effect. As the battle for equal rights hotted up, so workers in their hundreds turned towards their traditional political organisations and the NILP underwent a brief renaissance in the late 1960s.
For example, in the North West region of the Northern Ireland statelet, there had only been one NILP branch in 1968. By 1969 there were three. There was also a huge response to the establishment of Labour Party Young Socialist branches - the founding meeting of Strabane Young Socialists in 1969 was attended by 170 local youth; in a town of only 13,000. The greatest success was in Derry where the Labour Party - which distanced itself from the NILP because of the Unionism of the leadership, but did not link up with those 'labour' organisations that had gone down the road of nationalism, such as Gerry Fitt's Republican Labour Party - recruited hundreds of youth to the Derry Young Socialists, who were later to be the backbone of the defence of the Bogside.
Heightened political consciousness does not know national borders - there was an equal radicalisation of the Southern Irish Labour Party. The Donegal area in the north west had only one branch of the Labour Party - by 1969 it had 10.
But the Northern Ireland statelet was a seething cauldron waiting to explode. The protests and marches by the civil rights movement in 1969 were met by vicious attacks from the RUC and their auxiliaries, the B specials who were little better than Loyalist paramilitaries in state uniform.
Yet the NILP failed to give a lead to the civil rights movement, content instead to take a back seat leaving the movement open to the middle class Catholic leaders whose short sighted policies of equal opportunities alone, tinged with bourgeois nationalist sympathies merely antagonised the mass of Protestants.
Protestant workers had always feared unification with the ramshackle Southern Irish economy; unification on a capitalist basis would merely mean a redivision of inequality - and the Protestants feared they would become the new losers. The same was feared of the implementation of 'equal rights' in the Northern Ireland statelet - capitalism in whatever form, whether union with Britain or a united Ireland, cannot provide jobs, homes and decent conditions for all.
The failure of the NILP leadership to take the lead with a socialist programme that could alleviate the inadequacies of capitalism for all, left Protestant workers prey to the black sectarian propaganda of the Loyalist extremists.
As the civil rights leader and former MP Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) later admitted: "We realised that, however nicely we put it, more jobs for Catholics meant less jobs for Protestants. That was a realistic fear of theirs."
Inevitably the sectarian monster created by British Imperialism spiralled out of control, reaching an explosive crescendo in August 1969. Civil rights marches were brutally suppressed and a virtual pogrom was unleashed by the RUC and B Specials in Derry, as they made repeated efforts to invade the Catholic Bogside, being beaten back by a hastily formed Defence Committee.
Catholic workers in Belfast rioted and protested, hoping to take the pressure off Derry as the sectarian maelstrom took hold there, with 500 families being burnt out of their homes in one night alone following rampages by Loyalist gangs.
Workers - both Catholic and Protestant - bravely fought to defend their homes from sectarian attack with, in Derry, the Young Socialists taking the lead manning the barricades and running the 'Free Derry' radio station. As Liam de Paor in his book 'Divided Ulster' recorded: "The brunt of the street fighting has been borne not by any traditional nationalist element, but by the Young Socialists who have shown great courage."
Throughout the blazing Province, ordinary workers instinctively took a class position and strove to unite Catholic and Protestant workers, to stop the slide into sectarian civil war.
In Belfast in particular, ordinary workers formed defence organisations to guard their area. Non-sectarian 'Peace Patrols' sprung up in Ardoyne, Ballymurphy, Springhill, Turf Lodge, New Barnsley, Springmartin, Highfield and Clonard. A leaflet circulated by workers in the Dock ward of Belfast was typical of the stance taken by many workers, proclaiming: "All the Protestant and Catholic neighbours are still on the most friendly terms and if any outsiders attempt to come in and disrupt this harmony, they will be ordered out of the area."
A crucial stand was taken by workers at Harland and Wolff; all eyes were on the shipyard given its infamous role in the 1920 pogrom. On August 14th, stewards called a mass meeting - out of a total workforce of 9,000, 8,000 took part and voted overwhelmingly not to join in the sectarian madness. Protestant stewards then visited Catholic workers who had stayed away, ensuring them of their safety at work and urging them to return.
But the rank and file of the labour movement could not hold the breach alone. An intervention from the labour leadership was vital. Had the heroism of the workers striving against the odds for workers' unity been matched by their supposed 'leaders' then the situation would have been transformed.
Tragically it was not forthcoming. The trade union leaders in Northern Ireland, Britain and and Southern Ireland - as well as the leaders of the NILP, the British Labour government and the Southern Irish Labour Party had become increasingly detached from the struggles on the shop floor during the previous 20 years of capitalist boom.
They contented themselves with occasionally bargaining for a few partial reforms in the bosses' boardrooms or in the corridors of power in Whitehall. Faced with a real life and death crisis they were incapable of formulating class based demands that could unite Protestant and Catholic workers. They had become defenders of the rotten system, rather than tribunes for socialist change that could ensure peace and equality.
Thus they confined themselves to abstract calls for calm, and then joined the clamour - initiated ironically by the nationalist 'leaders' of the civil rights movement - to send in British troops. It was a cowardly act for which Northern Ireland would pay for the next three decades.