Comrades in Northern Ireland wrote this report on the current local situation and are in process of writing a second part on the current moment’s historical background. We hope the texts can contribute to the debate on the relation between ‘national conflict’ and working class emancipation. We published articles on the historical movements in South Africa and the dispute in Palestine and its regional context before.
When riots broke out in the Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland in April, no detail excited the English media more than images of children, some as young as twelve, actively participating – hurling bricks and molotov cocktails at the police and the ‘peace’ walls. Some just used it as a stick to once again batter the Johnson government over Brexit, but many more used it to bemoan the loss of innocence, the return to the ‘bad old days’ they had believed over, and the impossibility of lasting peace. It’s unsurprising, unfortunately, that they hadn’t taken notice that the brutality in the North had never stopped. For a hundred years now, the island of Ireland has been split in two, the 26 southern counties belonging to an Irish Republic, and six in the North remaining part of the United Kingdom. For some, this division is the natural separation between two peoples that have nothing to do with each other, and for others it is an obscene mutilation of the Irish homeland. It would seem that this flare-up of the ‘Irish Question’ brought about by Brexit is only the latest outbreak of the same question which haunted the feudal kings and nobles on both islands, and now burns in the minds of capitalists and officials in Belfast, Brussels, Dublin, and Westminster today. It is imbued with an almost mystical character – as though kneecappings in Creggan and riots in Cloughfern are only the unstoppable effects of some deeper, spiritual (or maybe even racial!) battle between Celts and Anglo-Saxons that can never end. This attitude to the history of the island, and its relationship with its neighbour, is accepted and encouraged by the leaders of both sides of the ‘sectarian divide’ here in our part of the world. They rely on us believing that the conflict over Northern Ireland’s status is merely the latest act in a far longer drama extending back to the hazy days of such colourful characters as King Billy and O’Donovan Rossa, and the brief reprieve after the Good Friday Agreement will inevitably give way to this unchanging battle. They pervert both the history and the current situation for their own ends, and are only semi-aware of what they are actually doing and why. We hope that this pamphlet will go some way to explain the current situation, and that a later one will correct some historical myths and put the present in context.
The Angry Workers, and our members in Northern Ireland, make no secret of the fact that we are a working class organisation, and believe that whatever divisions exist between the various sections of the working class will have to be overcome through struggle. This is whether they are national, industrial, racial, sexual, sectarian, or anything else. We also believe that in order to fight, the working class needs to understand its own interests, and see how they conflict with the interests of their ‘leaders’ from other classes. Everywhere, the capitalist and middle classes invest enormous efforts and resources in convincing us that we have more in common with them, on the basis of factors like race and nationality, than with our fellow workers, and this is especially pervasive than in Northern Ireland. We will detail later on the methods the state and ruling capitalist class uses to keep the Northern Irish working class isolated and weak, and how this is the purpose of the ‘sectarian divide’ itself. We don’t do this to say that both sides are identical, or that one side does not gain short-term benefits at the expense of the other – but to demonstrate that the only way out of the misery of our existence is by coming together under the banner of what unites us. That begins with an understanding of where we are now.
This pamphlet examines the current political situation in the North, including how the system of governance established by the Good Friday Agreement precipitated the current crisis in Unionism. It will look at the objective situation of the economy and the working class here, and also its subjective attitude, demonstrating how the division into Protestant and Catholic camps acts as a straitjacket on the class maintained by the state, the ruling class, and the middle class. It will look at the current level of the labour struggle in the region, and how its impediments might be overcome, and then finally discuss the illusory potential of a united Ireland for the working class.
The Crisis in Unionism
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate celebration of Northern Ireland’s centenary than the current crisis in Loyalism. From the introduction of the Irish Sea border at the start of the year, to the week of riots in April, followed by the humiliating end of Edwin Poots’ not-even-a-month leadership of the DUP, the once dominant movement in the North seems to be disintegrating. The origins of the crisis Loyalism faces lies in how Northern Ireland is governed. Ever since the Good Friday Agreement, the Executive has been made up of representatives from all main parties and headed by First and Deputy First Ministers from each side of the sectarian conflict, each with equivalent powers. The purpose of this arrangement is to force a minimum level of agreement and stability on the issues important for capital and business in the North: non-partisan issues like the economy, infrastructure, etc. This mandatory coalition prevents the parties from even pretending that they have separate economic and political goals, so the only way to distinguish themselves electorally is by their position on the cultural and constitutional questions. This means all the parties are reliant on maintaining the sectarian divide, on keeping a solid grip on their side of the conflict, and especially on keeping the working class bound to their respective capitalist and middle classes. The obvious paradox of this arrangement is that the Executive regularly collapses over trivial issues like the Irish Language Act, since both main parties survive by presenting themselves to their voters and their communities as the unshakeable defenders of their cause: any compromise damages that image and destabilises their position. As we’ll see, this creates a system that pushes into absurdity even by the standards of normal capitalist democracy.
The DUP had been steadily losing voter share since 2011 while the moderate unionist Alliance party made substantial inroads, particularly as the middle class Unionist vote began to tire of the former’s fire and brimstone preaching, and its reactionary stances on gay marriage and abortion. It was in this context that the party became the sole major voice in favour of Brexit in the North. Whatever it claimed, its real hope was a hard border on the island that would isolate the Nationalists and probably trigger a wave of violence it could exploit to keep Loyalism in line. Most other parties, including its fellow unionists in the UUP, argued against Brexit on the basis that the Northern Irish economy relied heavily on access to Irish and EU goods, markets, and migrants. When the 2017 General Election eked out such a meagre result for May’s Tories it was a godsend – the Confidence and Supply Agreement signed between the Conservatives and the DUP in order to get the former into government made the latter a real power in Westminster. The next three years were marked by the impossibility of concluding a Brexit agreement: the Tories couldn’t do that without DUP approval, and the DUP wouldn’t sign a deal without a hard border. But since that would have been a disaster for both the UK government and the EU, a stalemate ensued. This was broken in 2019 when the Johnson government smashed Labour in the General Election and the DUP ceased to be necessary for their majority. A Brexit deal was then signed that included the Northern Ireland Protocol; one that flew in the face of every promise Johnson had made to the DUP.
What the protocol essentially allows for is continued frictionless trade between Ireland and the North, while a customs border is instituted in the Irish sea. This had little effect on Northern Irish exports, but did seriously impact the movement of goods into the North from Great Britain, which is still currently relying on grace periods for key industries. This put the DUP in a desperate position: not only had it failed to achieve the hard border it had wanted, it had ended up isolated in a similar way to what it had hoped for its enemies. Since its position is dependent entirely on its reputation as the hardline against any concessions to Nationalism, it was crucial it did something to force a repeal of the protocol. So it resorted to the same tactics it has always used: stroking anger in its rank and file as well as letting vague threats of violence from leftover paramilitaries hang in the air in order to put pressure on the negotiations; a tactic which it ironically accuses Sinn Fein and the EU of using (which of course they did). What the party did not anticipate was the effect that this would have on Loyalists, who certainly did become enraged at the prospect of a border between themselves and the UK, but who also balked at the “softness” of the party which had allowed it to happen on their watch. The DUP’s loss of credibility was incredibly rapid. The moderate middle class it had already been losing viewed it as insane for its sly encouragement of violence, extremists felt betrayed, and the working class that had for so long believed that their continued existence depended on the union with Great Britain despised their leaders’ weakness. This loss of control became incredibly obvious in the wake of the riots at the start of April, whose more immediate causes we will see later on.
Arlene Foster’s days as First Minister and Leader of the DUP were numbered after that. Her eventual removal came after she abstained on a vote to ban gay conversion therapy: a final “betrayal” from the perspective of her party’s extremists, despite the fact that it was both necessary for electability and inconsequential. A coup was launched, which placed Edwin Poots on the throne, a man who had all the makings of the perfect DUP extremist. He was in many ways the best example of a certain species that evolved in the environment created by the Troubles and subsequent peace: a whole genus of pastor- and farmer-politicians, both parochial and stupid. While every state has the same function as acting as a tool for the interests of the capitalist class whose taxes and loans keep it functioning, the government in Northern Ireland has created a contradiction, where the survival of every party is dependent on maintaining as little collaboration and stability as possible, on disrupting the state’s function whenever they can. The theatre of disagreement in Westminster has its limits – at the end of the day most parliamentarians are competent enough to ensure capital is not poorly affected by its squabbling (recent exceptions during Brexit negotiations notwithstanding). But in Northern Ireland the actors must really believe in their parts and cannot admit any similar interest to their supposed opponents unless absolutely made to by external forces. Thus it was that a man who denied the Big Bang and evolution, and found suspect the presence of women in the workplace became leader of the largest party in the North. He had run on a platform that promised both a reorganisation of the DUP and of Loyalism that would allow the former to once again lead the latter, and the latter to repeal the protocol and win back the ground lost by his predecessor. The measures included a proposition to separate the positions of DUP leader and First Minister, which would have been bizarre anywhere else but in Northern Ireland, where it perfectly illustrates the dynamic of the state. The First Minister has to deal with interactions with Sinn Fein and the rest of the Executive, and has an interest in maintaining that body along with a certain degree of collaboration. The leader of the DUP (or any political party in the North) has the role of dominating their community and appearing to give no concessions. Separating them is reasonable in a system where collapsing the government is not a crisis, but a tactic.
A tactic, in fact, that Poots’ party wanted him to use. Sinn Fein had correctly identified the crisis the DUP faced and used it in order to push for an Irish Language Act. This piece of legislation, meant to recognise Gaeilge as an official language in the North, had gained totemic significance for both sides since it had first been promised in 2006. Successfully passing it would be a triumphant success for Sinn Fein, and a catastrophic failure for the DUP. The last time Sinn Fein had pushed for the ILA was in 2017 while the DUP was embroiled in the RHI scandal. Rather than give in, the DUP simply collapsed the Executive, leaving the North without a government for three years. The DUP was now urging Poots to do the same by not nominating a First Minister. However the situation had changed; collapsing the Executive would trigger an election while support for the DUP had halved, which could feasibly result in a coalition between Sinn Fein and Alliance. The party knew this, but couldn’t afford to seem weak once again in front of their base. So Poots vacillated and stalled until a lifeline appeared: Sinn Fein went behind their back and wrung a guarantee from the UK government that if the DUP didn’t legislate for Irish language provisions that had been already agreed, they would step in and force it through, having become exhausted of the endless Brexit row the North had been sustaining. Believing that he could successfully blame British treachery for forcing the move, Poots nominated a First Minister and Sinn Fein then nominated their Deputy, averting the election that would have doomed the DUP. But the party was livid. Not only had Poots not consulted them, he had allowed another concession to be made. A man who believed that the Earth was only 4,000 years old proved too sensible and moderate for the DUP, who forced him to resign the very same day. The leadership of the supposedly “moderate” Donaldson has largely continued Poots’ real program, whose concession allowed the new leader to get on with it without having made the necessary sacrifice himself.
What this cheap soap opera demonstrates is how crucial maintaining a grip on a sizable part of the working class is for the parties in Northern Ireland. Without the class’s continued belief in the necessity or impermissibility of a united Ireland, and that the party in question is the only credible choice for that, they enter the death spiral. The DUP crisis arose when faith in the latter tenant became untenable, while faith in the first remained strong. The maintenance of that belief is sustained by a whole apparatus of capitalist and middle class agents and organisations, but before discussing them in detail we need a brief overview of the economy and working class of Northern Ireland.
The Troubles left Northern Ireland an unstable location for capital, and as a result it received little investment in the two ensuing decades. The economy is therefore quite backwards relative to its neighbours in the south and east, relying on unproductive and low-tech industries, contributing only 2% of UK profits. The state employs 28% of workers, mostly in areas like administration and the health service, while businesses in the private sector are split between agriculture (23%), services like retail and logistics (59%), and production and construction (21%). The latter category is dominated by old-fashioned areas like food production and textiles, as well as building housing and infrastructure. This lack of productivity and profitability results in wages, on average, being 15% lower in NI when compared to GB equivalents, and for typically longer hours as well. This is in contrast to the South which, backed by extraordinary amounts of American capital and a low-tax policy to attract more, has become very profitable. Unemployment is lower than in the UK, but that official statistic obscures the fact that more than a quarter of the working-age population is “economically inactive” – primarily due to old age, long-term illness, and disability. The region is highly dispersed geographically, with the only major population centre, Belfast, housing 18% of people while the rest are spread out over small towns and villages. This is mirrored in the predominance of small capital: nearly a third of businesses (31%) have no workers and are purely middle class/petit-bourgeois; 59% have between one and nine workers; only 2.2% have more than fifty. As a result of this dispersal, the workers in the private sector are largely fragmented, with few big workplaces or geographic concentrations to encourage organisation. While the public sector is a lot more concentrated, and proportionally larger than in the UK, this advantage remains poorly used by the unions.
Divisions in the Working Class, and Methods of Control
Complementing this, the class is still extraordinarily divided along sectarian lines: outside Belfast, between a third and a half of people live in neighbourhoods or housing estates dominated by either Protestants or Catholics, while within Belfast it’s about 90%. The relatively small number of integrated areas are mainly middle class – driven by rising, affluent Catholics moving into areas that were previously wholly Protestant. In marked improvement from the days of the Troubles, Catholics tend to enjoy better social housing than Protestants, even though the latter faces shorter waiting lists. While the formal freedom exists to apply where you like for social housing, in practice this is made impossible by the real threat of paramilitary violence against those who would move into another community. Peace walls, made of scrap metal and concrete stretching eight metres high, act as physical barriers between adjacent neighbourhoods, with their number increasing since the Good Friday Agreement. These were a focus of attacks in the April riots. Nine tenths of schools are also tied to catchment areas that house a majority of one community, with state schools being de facto Protestant, and Catholic schools run by the Church and funded by subvention from the state. While the larger labour market reflects the proportions of the population (as in, there is generally not a large inequality in employment), most capital in Northern Ireland is small and local and it follows that many workplaces can only hire the people who live nearby, and will therefore generally be of a single religion. It is, as a result, perfectly possible that a Northern Irish worker can go their whole life without encountering a single member of the other side; except during events designed to propagate their mutual hostility and hatred like marches, flag-burnings, etc. Migration is much less prevalent in Northern Ireland than in England, with only about 5% of the population having been born outside the UK and RoI. Of the migrants that are here, most come from Eastern Europe (especially Poland and Lithuania), followed by India. Because of their shorter waiting lists and cheaper prices in the private market, many migrants end up concentrated in Protestant housing estates. Along with encroachment from Catholics and other factors, this has contributed to a sense amongst Protestants that they are facing an existential crisis. The general insecurity of the working class only makes this worse, and the apparatus that maintains the divide has been only too keen to exploit it.
The most obvious and brutal method of control and division is the remaining paramilitary organisations. Left over from the Troubles, these remnants of the old paramilitaries often have intact leaderships, but command structures rotting away, leaving behind cells and individuals with access to weapons, no oversight, and areas of influence. While many former members have spent the last two decades involved in peaceful methods of ensuring their communities remain bound to the peace, others have remained violent. Their supposed purposes are “community protection” and “social action”, disgusting euphemisms for the brutal subjugation of the working class – often under the guise of “socialism”. Their hold over working class areas is nearly total – to the extent that it is accepted practice for people to drive their own family to preordained spots for punishments, on the understanding that if they inform the victim of what is to come that they will be next. These punishments range from “kneecappings” where victims are shot through the knees, wrists, elbows, etc. to simple murder. These mutilations are said to be for the safety of the class, protecting them from child molesters, rapists and drug-dealers. Their real function is terror. The existence of these organisations is based on the sufferance of the workers, funding them through protection rackets in areas the police service will not enter, buying laundered fuel at lower prices they can actually afford, or taking short-term loans to survive only to find that the gangs will squeeze them dry until they run out of money, at which point they can either flee or die – leaving their relatives to pay off the remaining “debt”. With sick irony, most paramilitaries are also drug-dealers, murdering their competition as part of their “social action” in order to retain a monopoly. Back channels exist between all the main groups and the political parties, allowing (as we saw earlier) the latter to tactically use threats of violence from the former to pursue their aims, and protecting the former from any real prosecution. To take specific examples, the Provisional IRA that existed in the Troubles still exists, led by the same Provisional Army Council that oversees both it and Sinn Fein. This is known both by its members and the British state. Its command structures, however, are unique for remaining intact. The PAC is now committed to peaceful electoral means of creating a united Ireland and uses the PIRA mainly as an electioneering tool. They also monitor the remaining weapons caches to prevent their use by dissident Republicans, now mostly concentrated in the ‘New’ IRA, represented by a rump political party Saoradh. This group maintains pretensions that it is still fighting for a united Ireland, pointing to sporadic car bombings as proof. But it is really only just another gang. The UVF leadership is similar to the PAC in wanting to pursue political and peaceful modes of domination, but it has no control whatsoever of its members who, along with the UDA, have devolved completely into drug-dealing, petty robbery, smuggling, etc. These groups are represented by an umbrella called the LCC (Loyalist Coordinating Committee) with which the DUP has direct conversations and whose threats were used as leverage in the recent Protocol negotiations.
The largest of these organisations is the South East Antrim UDA, one of the spurs of the April riots, which had three main causes. The first was anger at the Northern Irish Protocol, stroked by the DUP precisely in order to cause some low-level violence in their favour. It may have stayed at those levels were it not for the two other factors: the Bobby Storey funeral, and the bust-up of an SEA UDA drug line. Bobby Storey was a PIRA militant who died in June 2020 while coronavirus restrictions were in place. Having been in prison since the age of seventeen, he helped carry out the largest prison break in British history, and was a hero of the Republican movement. His death was commemorated with a funeral attended by 1,500 people including most of Sinn Fein’s leadership in spite of pandemic rules, which sparked outrage amongst the Loyalist side. In March, the state finally arrived at a decision that Sinn Fein could not be prosecuted on account of the incoherence of the actual coronavirus legislation. Rank and file Loyalists were encouraged to be outraged; many working class Protestants have long believed that they are unfairly harassed by the PSNI. While this is technically untrue in that Catholics are still the ones being disproportionately policed, it is a symptom of the fact that the whole working class is abused by the police. That Protestants are prevented from seeing that is a testament to the success of the sectarian conflict in dividing the class. The final link in the chain was the PSNI drug bust that disrupted a major UDA supply chain. Looking for revenge, the organisations egged on disaffected Protestant youth with nothing better to do during COVID into attacking the police with petrol bombs. For eight days, the riots raged from Tullyally to Tiger’s Bay, promptly dissipating after the death of Prince Phillip. Some Nationalists also held diminutive counter-riots, but these were basically inconsequential reactions.
From cradle to grave, the life of the Northern Irish worker is permeated and regimented by the sectarian divide. Born into some of the worst poverty on both islands, surrounded by squalor and misery, employed in longer and more difficult jobs, terrorised by those who claim to be on “our” side, our lack of control over our own lives is painfully obvious to us. Our only joys come from each other: from the tightly bound communities that exist here. But just as our cooperation in the workplace is perverted and weaponised against us to produce capital, so is our connection outside the workplace. Their unity with the workers of our own side is fostered at the expense of inculcating a hatred against the other. To take an example from Loyalists: on the night before the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, massive bonfires are built out of tyres and wooden pallets (either kindly “donated” by logistics companies under paramilitary threat, or else stolen directly) and burn Irish tricolours, pictures of the Pope, and other symbols of Catholicism. The preparation for that night is a central community event, a public holiday to which families look forward. The day after is set aside for parades emphasising unity but the routes are chosen so as to deliberately pass by Nationalist areas; deliberate provocation that is often accompanied by intermittent violence. These are held by organisations like the Apprentice Boys and a pseudo-cult called the Orange Order, which offer real chances for better lives for young Protestant men, while indoctrinating them in an ideology of Protestant and Loyalist supremacy, grooming them to become the next set of reactionary “community leaders” and party members. Nationalists have their own equivalent organisations, and can also use sports like the Gaelic Football leagues. And on both sides youth centres, leisure activities, clubs, etc. are utilised in order to feed the conflict, by giving young people positive associations with the community they live in and funnelling them the ideology. The very same side that tortures us is the one to comfort us afterwards. These attitudes are even reinforced by the classroom, since education is also de facto segregated and generally taught by teachers of a single side, in spite of a common curriculum. This “carrot and stick” approach ensures that the working class is unable to fend for itself, relying on the organisations and leadership of the middle class and capitalist state. Even when workers, seeing the desperation of their conditions, gain the courage to try and fight for a better way of living their anger is redirected towards a nationalist, interclassist mould. All militancy will eventually be corrupted into paramilitancy, unless workers start organising across the sectarian divide.
Existing Struggles and the Future
And there is undoubted militancy in the class. If we look at superficial metrics: Trade Union membership is at 35%, and 44% of workers have pay affected by collective bargaining agreements, both of which are highest in the UK (helped by the predominance of public sector jobs). This indicates that unions have relatively larger memberships and are also a bit more active. Part of this is the absence of the Labour party in the North, which means that the state has a slightly reduced role in dominating the agendas of the large unions like Unite and Unison, but the other part is a history of worker militancy in the North. One need only look at the UWC strike that crippled the government for two weeks in the seventies, despite the fact that many were coerced into observing it by loyalist paramilitaries. More recently, nurses’ strikes before, and Hovis workers’ during the pandemic have shown that there is a willingness to fight. Down South, we find the Debenhams workers having struggled for nearly a year for decent severance pay. The primary obstacles to widening the class-based fights in the North are the fragmented nature of work which prevents large numbers of workers interacting, the sectarian division which is responsible for the lack of trust between workers to engage in action, and the weak connections with similar workers to the south and across the Irish sea. As a result of these there is little independent initiative, or rank-and-file organisation like what we see with the IWGB and other similar examples on the mainland. Immediate areas that could improve would include larger workplaces like the food production company Moy Park, or in public transport, which are proportionally representative of the population due to their size, and as a result could be used to organise both Protestant and Catholic workers, acting as a springboard for overcoming the division. Another area would be organising in businesses that operate in the South, where contact could be made with Irish workers and allow for cross-border collaboration. This will be especially important as the effects of the Protocol increasingly cause a reorganisation of Northern trade that favours its links with the South over Britain.
The Prospects for a United Ireland and the Border Poll Trap
Those who claim that a united Ireland is necessary for the working class ignore two salient facts: the first is that what the working class needs is not formal unity with its siblings, but a real unity based on common struggle as we discussed above, and the second is that Ireland is already united in all but name. There is next to no impediment for capital to access markets and operate in the North and South, a fact which has only been strengthened and enshrined by the Protocol. A result of this is that, though it doesn’t happen nearly enough as it should, there is very little to prevent workers organising across the border as well, and indeed Unite the Union and other smaller unions exist in both North and South – though they rarely use this to coordinate strikes and other action. The state powers in the North and the South appear separate, but in reality are interconnected by a massive bureaucracy. From the North/South Ministerial Council to the Joint Secretariat, the civil administrations of both states are linked by innumerable threads, coordinating on almost every single relevant issue. This was created by the Good Friday Agreement as another way to ensure the stability of the region for capital, and what disruption does occur is again mainly a result of the structural inability for Loyalists to reveal any signs of cooperation with their supposed enemies. The formal unity of the two states on the island would only have one real effect: the further coordination for the benefit of capital on the island, with next to no improvement for workers or their ability to organise and fight.
The ruling class in the Republic remains as committed to one day reclaiming its lost children in Ulster as it is terrified to bring up the issue. Nevertheless, over the coming months and years it is likely that sections of the ruling class will continue to present the Border Poll as an item on the menu of solutions to the problems of the working class. Whether presented as the “betrayal of Unionist tradition” or the path to “Irish national unity and independence” the ruling class North and South will use the issue to maintain their deep seated “divide and rule” strategy. The “carnival of reaction” around the question of a Border Poll will only increase if such an event materialises – irrespective of the outcome. It would only further entrench the sectarian divide and erode the cohesion of workers and their readiness to struggle. We can make no defence of our own interests by either falling in behind the maintenance of the current state arrangements where the power of capital dominates, or a revised 32 county setup where the same exploitative relationships will remain unaltered. We believe that the only real solution is the organisation of the class as a whole, fighting for its unified interests both within the nation, and internationally.