Ireland and the politics of bigotry – Part Six

It happens every July – the marching season! Through the streets of cities in Northern Ireland and Scotland the Orange Walks take place, come rain or shine. With shoulders back and heads held high they march to the beat of bigotry, exhibiting their pride in their Protestant religion although many of them don’t see the inside of a Church from one year’s end to the next.

The Orange Walk

They prefer to march through predominantly Catholic areas flaunting their delusory “Glorious Protestant victory on the green grassy slopes of the Boyne”. They live in the past, which is folly enough, but even the past they live in is a catalogue of lies; lies manufactured by the rich landlord classes and aristocracy, and after that their capitalist exploiters, to keep the Catholic and Protestant peasantry and working class divided.

Divide and rule, the oldest trick in the book, and they have been fooled by it for two hundred years. As long as they remain in ignorance of the reality of their historical origins they will keep on marching, and they will keep the working class divided by a barrier of blind and pointless bigotry.

Despite its prominence, the Orange movement is not representative of the majority of Scotland’s Protestants. Its current membership is about fifty-thousand, which is only 1% of the country’s population. Nevertheless its strident and proselytizing zeal extends its influence far beyond its core membership.

The first Scottish Orange Lodges in the early 1800’s were of military origin and this is reflected to this day in the Orange Marches with their brass bands, flutes, drums and stirring, often martial style music. By the 1830’s there were full Orange Districts in Airdrie, Ayr, Dumfries, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Stranraer. The leading members have traditionally included many high-ranking army officers, peers of the realm and Conservative MP’s.

When leaders of the Orange Order tried, in co-operation with the Tories, to stop the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act and the Reform of Parliament in 1831 an enquiry into its activities led to William IV ordering the Order to be dissolved in 1836, throwing the movement into disarray. It was not until 1850-51 that the Lodges got their act together again, enrolling in an organisation with the lengthy title of the Grand Protestant Association of Loyal Orangemen of Great Britain (GPALOGB).

In 1859 there was a disturbance at an Orange Walk at Linwood which resulted in loss of life. Consequently the Sheriffs of Ayr, Lanark and Renfrew put a ten year ban on the marches and, when the Grand Lodge acquiesced to the ban, a number of lodges left the order in protest and joined the Liverpool-based Institute of Great Britain. Thus the Orange movement was split in two, but both sections grew in number with the continuing influx of Ulster Protestants into Scotland. In 1876 the two sections reunited again under the current name of the Loyal Orange Institution of Scotland.

In 1918 Orangemen were angered by the Education Act which brought Roman Catholic education under State sponsorship. This, they claimed, not only legitimised religious apartheid, but also enriched the Catholic Church by paying for its school buildings.

The other side of bigotry

Orangeism, of course, is not the only cause of religious bigotry. For many years the Catholic hierarchy has played its part in hardening the religious divide. For a long time the Protestant ruling classes frowned on the concept of mixed marriage, but eventually they faced reality and in 1870/71 made it legal for Catholic Priests to conduct marriage ceremonies between mixed couples.

But the Catholic Archbishop (later cardinal) Paul Cullen of Armagh was determined to make it as difficult as possible for Protestants and Catholics to intermarry. He and his bishops decreed that in cases of mixed marriage the ceremony must henceforth take place in the sacristy, rather than in the main body of the church, without mass or nuptial blessing.

This was a deliberate attempt to humiliate any Protestant who contemplated marrying a Catholic. By treating Protestants as inferiors in this manner the Catholic hierarchy were making a considerable contribution to the build-up of religious bigotry. This was further exacerbated in 1908 by the papal decree Ne Temere which insisted that children of mixed marriages be brought up as Catholics.

Until then it was the tradition that in mixed marriages the sons followed the father’s religion and the daughters followed the mother’s. So another bitter bone of contention was given to the Protestants to chew over and there can be no doubt that the uncompromising interference of the Catholic Church increased the religious tension, and therefore increased the atmosphere of bigotry, between both religions.

Then there is the question of education. In the early 19th century religious segregation in the education system was not a big problem; the Catholic Archbishop Slattery of Cashel (1833-57) was educated at the Protestant Trinity College in Dublin. But later in the century, as education became more widespread and gained in importance, things changed. Protestant schoolteachers would teach classrooms of children of mixed religions that Catholicism was rubbish, and no doubt Catholic teachers would decry Protestantism. So perhaps it was understandable that a demand grew for separate schools.

The Catholic bishops were also alarmed that educated Catholics would go to see ‘lewd’ plays and read inappropriate literature under the ‘bad influence’ of a non-denominational education system. These opinions were strongest in Ireland, but like most religious controversy in Ireland it soon spread to Scotland. No doubt there were plenty of Protestants who were happy with the idea of religious segregation in education; there certainly were plenty in Ulster who felt that way. And so today we have a system in Great Britain where Catholics go to strictly Catholic schools, generally overseen by the Catholic clergy.

During World War II, in cases where state schools were destroyed by bombing, Catholic schools refused to take in ‘Protestant’ children, even temporarily, unless they converted to Catholicism. This narrow-mindedness at such a time did nothing for the Catholic image.

The school question

There are other factors which contribute to the prevailing bigotry that exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the persecution of Irish Catholics for over seven centuries, the annual provocation of the Orange marching season; the ‘Old Firm’ games, the religious segregation in schools and the conditions imposed on mixed marriages by the Catholic Church all play their part in keeping this abhorrent situation going and keeping the Catholic and Protestant working-classes apart.

It would be far better for the ordinary working-class Catholics and Protestants of Scotland and Northern Ireland if they rid themselves of the bane of bigotry and united in the common cause of making a better life for themselves and a better future for their children. So how do we eradicate this problem? Many will shrug their shoulders in despair and say, “It has always been like this and always will be, there’s nothing that can be done”. That is defeatist nonsense! Let us look at some steps that can be taken to help matters.

To begin with, bigotry in Scotland is not as extreme as it is in Ulster. It is true that in the aftermath of ‘Old Firm’ games there are plenty of violent, sometimes even fatal, incidents. These are accompanied by an increase in arrests and an increase in wife-beatings. Apart from the football-related incidents there are other sporadic instances of violent confrontation, but unlike Northern Ireland there are no bombings or systematic shootings such as occurred in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere.

The reason for this is that, despite the barriers to mixed marriage imposed by the Catholic Church, there are many more cases of Catholics and Protestants inter-marrying in Glasgow than, say, in Belfast. As a result most Glaswegians have relatives from both religions, and there are no strictly Catholic or Protestant ghettos in Glasgow. This stops the religious antipathy reaching the intensity we have seen in the Six Counties. This is a good thing for all concerned.

So if the Catholic Church were to remove the petty-minded restrictions imposed on mixed marriages and treat married couples as adults by allowing them to decide for themselves how their children are to be raised, it would considerably relieve the underlying tension between the two religions. But the Catholic hierarchy resists taking such a step, and is thus directly contributing to the cancer of bigotry and sectarianism.

Catholic Schools are nowadays renowned for their excellence. But faith schools of any denomination inevitably help sow the seeds of bigotry by alienating schoolchildren from each other. It has already been said that there was a time when the demand for separate schooling was understandable, but that time is over and done with. If a schoolchild goes to a different school from his little pal next door he wonders why. ‘What makes us different?’ he asks himself, and right away a sense of alienation takes root.

The separation of children into schools divided on religious lines is something we must absolutely reject. It fosters a psychology of separateness, which is the soil on which bigotry thrives. From a very young age, children are brainwashed to believe in “them” and “us”. They are taught that “we” are right and “they” are wrong; that “we” will go to heaven and “they” will go to hell; that “we” are good and “they” are all bad, and so on.

The Catholic Church could argue that children cannot learn their religion properly unless they go to a Catholic school. But this is not so. In Co. Clare a co-operative commune was set up in the estate of John Vandeleur, High Sheriff of the county. It was managed on a socialist basis by Thomas Craig after a meeting of estate workers on 7th November, 1831. They named it The Ralahine Agricultural and Manufacturing Co-operative Association and it was worked by both Catholic and Protestant members of the commune. It was a great success.

Freedom of religious practices was granted to all and religion was taught by both Catholic Priests and Protestant ministers, and by parents, to the pupils concerned. Catholic priest and Protestant minister approved of the system and people came from all over Britain to marvel at this community that prospered so well in the midst of a strife-torn country. If that system had been applied all over Ireland there would have been a very different and much happier history of Ireland to write about. Of course, for that to happen power would have had to be in different hands, those of the ordinary working people who have no real material interest in continuing the conflict.

Unfortunately, the co-operative was brought to an end after two years when Vandeleur had to sell his estate to pay off gambling debts. At its closure the Catholic and Protestant workers signed a joint declaration stating that they had lived for two years in a state of unprecedented happiness. All this was achieved at a time of extreme Catholic-Protestant agitation, and without any call for children to attend different schools.

The effect of this separation on impressionable children is stronger than society generally realises, and there is no good reason for it. Reading, writing and arithmetic are exactly the same no matter what school you attend. The same goes for history, geography, geometry, algebra, poetry, music and any other subject you care to mention. So why have separate schools? The answer, once again is easy to come to if one looks at the class interests involved, and the need to apply the concept of ‘Divide and Rule’.

Questions to an Orangeman

If Orangemen examine the historical facts, and then face the undeniable truth, they will inevitably come to the conclusion that they have been duped, first by the aristocracy, and then by the capitalist establishment. They have been used as tools by the aforementioned to keep the working-class Catholics and Protestants divided and suppressed. That truth is a bitter pill to swallow, but the sooner it is swallowed the better.

Let every member of the Orange Order study the ideals he or she purports to stand for. Then compare those ideals with the historical truth:

1) The Protestant ethic is one of tolerance for other people’s faiths and ideals. It is this tolerance and liberty that the Orange Order claims it promotes and defends. If this is one of the principles of Orangeism then why did the Orange Order oppose Catholic emancipation? How can you claim to be tolerant when you tried to deny Catholics the right to vote? And what about that great champion of your cause, the so-called ‘reverend’ Ian Paisley? The man is a throw-back to the Middle Ages and is looked upon throughout the English-speaking world as the very personification of intolerance and bigotry. In view of this, how can the Orange order claim to be the defenders of tolerance and liberty?

2) Your founders adopted the name ‘Orange’ because they claimed that William III was the Monarch most associated with freedom and democracy. Yet, after the Scottish Presbyterians who had settled in Ulster spilled their blood for him he denied them the right to practise their religion, just as he did the Catholics. He made them pay tithes to the Anglican Church, just as he did the Catholics. By his vile treachery he caused 200,000 disillusioned and despairing Presbyterians to leave Ulster and emigrate to America. Your great ‘Protestant hero’ was a self-interested back-stabber who used you and then betrayed you. And furthermore, your glorious Protestant victory at the Boyne was in fact a papal victory, partly paid for and first celebrated by the Catholic Church. All of this is true, and not exaggerated in the slightest degree.

Yet it is not too late to correct matters. If you are looking for a real Protestant hero then look at the example of Wolfe Tone, a man who dedicated his life to the fight for justice for both Catholics and Protestants. Now there is a man, and a cause, worth marching for.

And take a good look at the ordinary working-class Irish Catholics in both the South and the North of Ireland. For eight hundred years they were persecuted: persecuted by Anglo-Norman invaders who did so with the full blessing of the Pope, persecuted by the Tudors; persecuted by Cromwell, persecuted by the rich landlords who stole their land then made virtual slaves of them; and even persecuted by the ungrateful and haughty hierarchy of their own Church. Isn’t it time they had a break? After all, in the Republic of Ireland the Protestant minority 1suffer no persecution or prejudicial mistreatment. It is true that the percentage of Protestants in the South has reduced from 10% to 3%. But that was because so many Protestants decided to leave the new Republic; it was their own choice, they were not driven out.

Both the Orange Order and the Catholic Hierarchy have conspired to split the working class with their religious bigotry and paranoia about socialism. Isn’t it about time for the working class, whether Protestants or Catholics, to unite and fight together in an endeavour to create a better life for each other? It can be done. They can be united in a common cause. Wolf Tone did it. James Connolly did it. James Larkin did it. And there is no reason why it cannot be done again. All that is needed to cut across the sectarian divide is a determined and class conscious lead.

What can be done?

Both the Catholic and Protestant religions are supposed to be following the words of Christ, but you will find nothing in the New Testament that could justify the bigotry, the mutual hatred and the pointless bloodshed that has been shed in the past. The message of Christ to his followers was supposed to be: ‘Love one another’. It does not say: You must hate people just because they do or do not go to Mass. The so-called Christian message of the bigots on both sides reeks of moral hypocrisy.

What attitude should socialists take to this question? In the first place, there is an issue of democracy that ought to have been solved two hundred years ago. The radical separation of religion and state is an elementary principle of democracy. It was no accident that this principle was adopted by the Founding Fathers in the American Constitution in the 18th Century. But nowadays, in the epoch of capitalism’s senile decay this democratic principle is under attack. In the USA, the religious right is spending vast amounts of money to reintroduce religion into politics and government.

All of the Republican Presidential candidates are religious fanatics to one degree or another. Instead of the scientific theories of Charles Darwin, they wish to teach children that the world was created in six days, that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that the first woman was made out of Adam’s rib. They oppose abortion and wish to ban scientific research into stem cells that could save millions of lives.

This insidious invasion of religion into government, politics and education is a completely reactionary development that must be combated. In Britain the same phenomenon exists, although it may be less vocal. Tony Blair and the other leaders of so-called New Labour played a lamentable role in this respect, as in all others. Blair and Bush are said to have prayed to God together before bombing hell out of the people of Iraq. Blair was personally responsible for pushing the current craze for “Faith-based education” while he was in Number 10. He later announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Now the Lib-Dem-Con Coalition is continuing and deepening this retrograde trend.

This is a thoroughly reactionary development, not only because it divides children along religious lines, but because it is a disguised attack on state education and a dishonest cover for cuts in public spending on education. No progress can be made in the war against bigotry unless and until educational religious apartheid is extirpated root and branch. The education of children is far too important a matter to be entrusted to priests and nuns, or for that matter, to mullahs and rabbis. We stand for the abolition of all private education – including the so-called “faith schools” and the introduction of a single, state education that is universal, obligatory and completely free at all levels.

Not a single penny of public money should go to subsidise the churches, either directly or indirectly. We oppose any public money being given to so-called “Faith schools”. Education is a right for every child, and no child should be excluded from, or chosen for, a given school because of his or her religious beliefs. If parents wish to indoctrinate their children in a particular creed, they must do so in their own time and pay for it with their own money. But religion has no place in our schools, which must be 100% secular and scientific, as befits a civilized society in the 21st century.

As the reader has probably gathered, the author of these articles is not religious, but he has a great deal of affection for the ordinary working-class Catholics and Protestants of whom he writes. He does not want to believe that generations of children as yet unborn will grow up hating each other because they are being taught different versions of Christianity.

The final solution to religious bigotry, superstition and obscurantism of all sorts lies in a root-and-branch change in society. A genuinely humane society in which everybody would be guaranteed a job, a house, a living wage, a good education for their children and decent provision for sickness and old age, would lay the basis for eliminating the dog-eat-dog mentality and removing the unhealthy competition between working people that is the real basis of racism and bigotry.

It is the duty of every class-conscious worker to fight for the sacred unity of our class. The only hope for working-class Catholics and Protestants if they want a better future for themselves and their children is to fight against social injustice, for a better life – for a socialist future.


[H.Whittaker, the author is a lifelong trade union activist in the building industry, who has dedicated his life to the cause of the working class and socialism. He was born and bred in Glasgow, where he now lives, and has written several articles for]

See also parts 1  - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5