This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the partition of Ireland. With sectarian tensions rising once again, the real history of that period – of revolution and counter-revolution – needs to be reclaimed. NIALL MULHOLLAND writes.
On 22 June 1921, a parliament for the new state of Northern Ireland, compromising the six counties in the north east of the island, was opened by King George V, in its temporary accommodation in Belfast City Hall. Over the next months, the twenty-six county Irish Free State also came into being.
The Irish workers’ leader James Connolly’s dire prediction in 1914 that the division of Ireland (partition) would lead to “a carnival of reaction” was fully borne out. Civil war, military rule, sectarian upheaval and bloody pogroms accompanied the creation of the two impoverished and church-ridden capitalist states. From the start, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland’s ‘Orange State’ were brutally treated and discriminated against. Arising from British imperialism’s long held ‘divide and rule’ tactics, partition was a monstrous crime against the interests of the working class of Ireland, cutting across national and social revolutionary movements and entrenching sectarian divisions.
The real history of that period of revolution and counter-revolution in Ireland, from around 1913 to 1923, is obfuscated and distorted in most of the history books. And the main political parties in the North inevitably view this pivotal period of Irish history from their sectarian perspectives.
With his characteristic bombast, prime minister Boris Johnson flew into Belfast to announce plans marking one hundred years since the creation of Northern Ireland, and called it an “obvious cause for celebration”. For working class Catholics however there is nothing to ‘celebrate’ about being subjected to decades of institutionalised discrimination, joblessness and poverty, gerrymandering and a heavily repressive state. And in truth, working class Protestants have little to show either for the so-called ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’. Any advantages they had over their Catholic working class neighbours were marginal when compared to the common misery of poverty, joblessness, low pay, atrocious housing, and all the other social ills of capitalism. They always had more in common with working class Catholics than with the ‘fur-coat brigade’ ruling Ulster unionists.
The first colony
The mainstream bourgeois narrative tells us that partition was the inevitable outcome of age-old deep sectarian divisions between Catholics and Protestants. But was this the case?
Ireland was England’s first colony and from the twelfth century onwards it was devastated by a series of wars of conquest. Brutal oppression bred a fierce spirit of revolt and repeated uprisings. Having put down the last of the Irish chieftains’ revolts, the colonial administration settled the most troublesome province, Ulster, with English and Scottish Protestant ‘planters’ on land confiscated from Catholics.
During the 18th century, however, inspired by the revolutionary struggle of American colonists, a movement developed demanding more powers for the unrepresentative parliament in Dublin. A commercial and industrial class was developing in Ireland, especially in the north. But economic advance in Ireland was hindered by government restrictions used to protect industry in Britain.
Influenced by the 1789 French revolution, the Society of United Irishmen was formed, to unite ‘Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’ and became a revolutionary mass movement demanding an independent democratic republic with full equality for all. The United Irishmen found strong support in the growing commercial town of Belfast, among more prosperous tenant farmers in the north, and from Presbyterians who resented the privileges of the Anglican Church, to whom the landlords and aristocracy belonged.
Antagonism still existed between poor Catholic and Protestants who competed over land tenancies. The Protestant Orange Order was formed in 1795 after sectarian clashes between Catholic and Protestant tenants in Armagh and Tyrone. Many of its adherents were recruited into the yeomanry – an official militia officered by landlords. The United Irishmen’s insurrection in 1798 against British colonial rule was mercilessly crushed, with the ‘the men of property’ betraying the struggle.
Following the failure of the rebellion, the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1801 was introduced. Irish MPs, drawn from the Protestant Ascendancy, took seats in Westminster and the Irish parliament voted to abolish itself. The Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 gave the mass of the population some political power and a powerful nationalist movement began to develop. This manifested itself in alternating constitutional and physical force movements.
The creation in 1870 of what would become the Home Rule League, led by Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell, saw the question of Irish self-government put firmly on the parliamentary agenda. Parnell’s party, representing the growing middle class in the south, won 85 seats at Westminster.
Opposition to Home Rule was strongest in Ulster. Following the Act of Union restrictions on industry and trade were lifted and Ulster, especially Belfast, prospered under the Union. Steam power revolutionised the linen industry, an engineering industry developed and later shipbuilding. Belfast’s industries depended on Britain for their markets and towards the end of the 19th century they began to share in the benefits of the growing Empire. The Belfast businessmen and merchants became strong supporters of the union in which they had a vested interest. At the same time famine, poverty and oppression led to mass migration from Ireland, something that means that today the total population of the island is still over a million lower than it was in 1841.
By the 1880s, Parnell’s party held the balance of power in the House of Commons. In April 1886 the Liberal Party prime minister William Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill. Although it provided for the most limited form of self-government, the Ulster bosses saw it as a threat to their prosperity. They formed an alliance with the Conservative Party in Britain and the landlord-dominated local Tories. The Bill was lost in the Commons because of a Liberal Party revolt led by its ‘Unionist’ wing which eventually joined with the Tories to form the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’. Gladstone introduced another Home Rule Bill in 1893 which was passed by the Commons this time but defeated in the Lords.
In opposition to the Home Rule threat, the Ulster Unionists cemented links with the Orange Order and carried out a systematic policy of discrimination against Catholics. The bosses’ policy of divide and rule was also used as a weapon against the growing labour and trade union movement.
The bosses in Ireland, both Orange and Green, were right to be concerned about organised labour. By the late 19th century and first decade of the 20th century the Irish working class had loudly announced its arrival, and produced two outstanding revolutionary leaders, James Connolly and James Larkin. The Irish Trade Union Congress was established in 1894. The 1907 Belfast dockers’ strike was led by James Larkin, which resulted in the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) in 1909. In 1912 the Irish Labour Party was established on the initiative of Connolly.
In 1913 the Dublin employers locked out 25,000 workers. Larkin was leader of the ITGWU during the lockout and he was imprisoned. This titanic struggle lasted from August until the following February, ending in stalemate. The Irish Citizen Army was formed during the lockout, to defend strikers from police attacks, and was fashioned by Connolly as a revolutionary socialist militia. The Dublin workers had widespread support from British workers, but the leadership of the conservative trade unions in Britain did not provide the assistance required to win.
One strike followed another in the run up to world war one. As well as the Belfast dockers, carters and coal men and textile workers, made up of predominantly female workers, went on strike. Mobilised in common struggle, the working class in the north tended to push aside sectarian divisions.
Class struggle was also reaching a pitch in Britain. During the summer of 1911, there were two great national strikes in Britain – the railway and transport workers, followed by strikes of the seamen, firemen, dockers, coal-fillers and carters. The Dublin dockers refused to unload ships from striking ports in Britain.
At the same time, the Home Rule crisis continued. After the 1910 Westminster elections, the British Liberal government was dependent on the votes of the parliamentary Home Rule party, now called the United Irish League (UIL), led by the conservative nationalist, John Redmond. In 1911, the powers of the House of Lords were limited by an Act of Parliament that reduced its ability to block legislation from the lower house to no more than three times in one parliamentary session, opening the way for Irish Home Rule.
To prevent Home Rule, the most reactionary ruling class circles in Britain and Ireland resorted to playing the ‘Orange card’. In 1911 the Ulster Unionist Council leader Edward Carson threatened to establish a provisional government in Ulster if the Home Rule Bill was passed. Unionists began organising and drilling a private army, which became the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). In April 1914, the UVF landed 25,000 rifles and two and half million rounds of ammunition at Larne port in County Antrim. When the Liberal government in London made a half-hearted attempt at a precautionary move against Unionist resistance, using the British army in Ireland, they were met with the mutiny of British army officers at the Curragh military base in County Kildare.
The Irish National Volunteers was formed at the end of 1913 and controlled by an uneasy alliance of Sinn Féin supporters, members of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and Redmond’s United Irish League.
Civil war seemed to threaten but the outbreak of world war one put the whole Home Rule question on hold. Carson urged members of the UVF to join the British army and Redmond did the same with the Volunteers. The unionists were promised by the British government that participation in the war would secure Ulster against Home Rule and the Redmonites were told that sending workers to the killing fields of Flanders for the ‘rights’ of small nations would bring post-war Home Rule to Ireland.
The Volunteers split, with a minority under Sinn Féin and IRB influence opposing participation in the war. Connolly’s Citizen Army took the same attitude. With Connolly acting as the driving force, the organisations began to plan for an uprising against British rule. Connolly, like Lenin, was dismayed by the leadership of most of the social democratic parties across Europe, who had capitulated to their own ruling classes’ role in the imperialist slaughter.
With the Irish working class temporarily exhausted after years of intense class struggles, Connolly threw his lot in with the radical petit-bourgeois nationalists. But addressing the Irish Citizen Army shortly before the Easter Rising, Connolly warned: “In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty”.
On Easter morning 1916 the rebels seized control of the Dublin General Post Office (GPO) and central parts of the city and proclaimed a republic. The Rising was crushed by British forces after a week of fierce fighting. Lenin, defending the revolt, remarked, “it is the misfortune of the Irish that they rose prematurely before the European revolt of the proletariat had had time to mature”.
The heroic revolt failed but British brutality, particularly the drumhead trials and executions of the Rising’s leaders, including Connolly, changed the mood of the nationalist population. No longer would they be prepared to have limited Home Rule within the British Empire.
After the Rising, thousands of rebels and suspected rebels were rounded up by the British military. The jails and internment camps in Britain became universities for a new generation of revolutionaries. Growing support for republicanism was shown in elections. In February 1917, republicans put up an independent candidate in a by-election in North Roscommon who easily defeated the Redmondite candidate. The winner refused to take his seat at Westminster following the abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin. Over the next months Sinn Féin became the main voice of republicanism, despite the fact that when it was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith it was as a separatist party, proposing a shared monarchy with Britain, not a republican party.
British authorities harassed and arrested Volunteers. An IRB leader, Thomas Ashe, was force-fed after going on a hunger strike with 13 others, demanding political status. He died on 25 September 1917. Thirty thousand people followed his funeral cortege, including ITGWU members.
The leadership void
Sinn Féin grew rapidly. The Irish Volunteers numbered between 50,000 to 60,000, and Cumann na mBan, the armed women’s organisation, also saw an influx of militant recruits.
Over 1,000 people attended Sinn Féin’s October 1917 conference and elected new leadership, with Eamonn de Valera, the most senior surviving commandant of Easter 1916, at its head. The leadership was, in effect, a coalition of nationalists of varying political views and class interests, from those of urban workers and small farmers to big ranchers and the upper-middle class. Under pressure from working-class militants, Sinn Féin’s constitution mentioned workers and women’s rights but its commitment to these causes remained weak and ill-defined.
With James Connolly dead, the new labour movement leadership did not take an independent class position on the national question. Whereas Connolly had acted to put the labour movement at the head of the national struggle, new leaders like William O’Brien believed that the labour movement and Labour Party should stand aside from the national issue – concentrating on building union organisation – and let other parties take the lead. This false division between the goals of the labour movement and the national struggle was to prove disastrous for the working class.
Although Connolly had set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) in his formative years of activity in Ireland, he did not leave behind a Marxist cadre organisation like Lenin’s Bolsheviks. In the absence of Connolly’s influence, the leaders of the Labour Party moved in a reformist direction and subordinated themselves to the bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalists. Connolly always strove to tie together the national and social struggles but O’Brien and co lacked Connolly’s Marxist understanding and courageous leadership.
Yet the power of the working class was on display time and again throughout these years. The British government announced in early 1918 that conscription would be introduced in Ireland to compensate for the huge losses on the western front. On 20 April, 1,500 delegates attended a special labour movement congress in Dublin and backed a call from the executive of the Irish Trade Union Congress and Labour Party for a general strike on 23 April. “Labour Day comes and there are no trains, trams, bread, papers, no shops open. The very clouds scarcely move”, wrote an observer. Fearing another revolt, the British authorities dropped plans for conscription and extended repressive measures. This only increased the authority of the republican movement.
On 11 November 1918, the European war ended and on 25 November the Westminster parliament was dissolved. Out of 105 seats in Ireland, Sinn Féin won 73, while the Irish Nationalist Party, formerly with 80 seats, won only six, and the Unionists 26. On 1 January 1919, Sinn Féin members who had been elected gathered at Dublin’s Mansion House and established Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament). Invited Unionists and Nationalist Party MPs did not attend. A Declaration of Independence was read out and an appeal to the world to recognise the new republic. Dáil Éireann was unanimously recognised as the national government at the Irish TUC and Labour Party congress. The first country to recognise the Irish republic was the young Soviet Republic of Russia.
The 1917 Russian revolution was hugely attractive to workers and the oppressed internationally, not least in Ireland where the movement was directed both against British imperialism and against the Irish capitalists and big landlords. On 1 February 1919, the Limerick Trade and Labour Council protested at the treatment of political prisoners at Limerick jail. A prominent trades council member and local Volunteer leader, Robert J Byrnes, was arrested and went on a hunger strike. Hearing Volunteers planned his rescue British military shot Byrnes while he lay weak in bed.
On April 4, a strike of 15,000 workers across the city was called. The British proclaimed Limerick a military area. The Limerick ‘soviet’ – based on the democratic workers’ councils of action during the Russian revolution – emerged. The trades council virtually took over the running of the city. Strike money was printed and supplies were organised and distributed. But the Irish Trade Union Congress failed to spread solidarity action, and the local Sinn Féin mayor and the Catholic Church undermined the soviet.
An unfolding revolution
On 11 September 1919, British authorities declared Dáil Éireann an “illegal assembly” and all national movements were banned. Thousands of British troops were poured into the country to augment the Royal Irish Constabulary. Michael Collins, the Volunteers’ Director of Organisation and Intelligence, ordered the obtaining of arms and ammunition. The Volunteers now became the ‘army of the Irish Republic’ – the IRA. A clash between IRA men of Cork No 2 Brigade and the military in Fermoy on 7 September left a British soldier dead. Two hundred soldiers attacked Fermoy the next day, looting and destroying homes and shops. The ‘War of Independence’ had started.
This was a largely rural guerrilla struggle against British colonial brutality. Throughout the war strong class tensions existed within the republican movement. Sinn Féin leaders were mainly from the middle and lower-middle classes. Most IRA fighters were urban workers and the rural poor and many instinctively wanted social and national liberation
Military clashes and engagements began to take place throughout Ireland, developing into a policy of terror and counter-terror. The authorities recruited ex-servicemen from Britain, who arrived in Ireland in the first months of 1920. Issued with ad hoc outfits made up of parts of army and police uniforms, they were dubbed the ‘Black and Tans’. This name became synonymous with brutality and savage acts of indiscriminate mass reprisals against nationalist communities.
The British ruling class correctly feared mostly the rising industrial struggles. In 1919, strikes of engineers and transport workers in Belfast assumed general strike proportions. The power of the organised working class was on display again on 12 April 1920, when the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Labour Party called a general strike in support of political prisoners on hunger strike in Mountjoy prison. After three days of the strike, the prisoners were unconditionally released. In May 1920, the ITGWU called a strike against military occupation, with railway workers refusing to transport British troops and dockers refusing to handle munitions of war.
Between 1921 and 1923, many workers and rural workers’ occupations and strikes took place (often referred to as ‘soviets’). In May 1920, ITGWU strikers at Knocklong creamery seized control of the factory under the slogan: “We make butter, not profits!” In May 1921, the Arigna coal mines in County Leitrim were taken over by the workers and a red flag hoisted. In September of the same year, the port of Cork was taken over and run as a ‘soviet’. Lands were seized by workers and run as communes or soviets especially in County Clare. In 1922, soviets were declared in Munster province, in the towns of Mallow, Cashel and Ballingarry.
The land and factory seizures took place from below, with the leadership of the labour and trade union movement lagging behind events and failing to lead and extend the struggles. All such working class initiatives were eventually suppressed by the British authorities, the conservative wing of the IRA and, after partition, by pro-Treaty Free State forces.
British imperialism’s greatest fear was the possibility of the struggle against colonial rule in Ireland converging with the politically radicalised working class in Britain. The British ruling class openly stated that preventing the spread of ‘Bolshevism’ was a major factor behind all their political calculations. In January 1919, there was a general strike in Glasgow at the same time as that in Belfast, involving 100,000 workers. It ended in savage conflict with the government sending in the army.
To shore up their position, Unionist bosses whipped up Orange reaction. They were as worried about the gains of the labour movement as they were about republicanism. The January 1920 Belfast corporation elections resulted in the return of 13 Labour candidates from the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party.
Across Ireland in these elections, of the 1,806 seats, 550 Sinn Féin councillors were elected and 355 Unionists were returned. Despite the failings of its leaders, Labour managed to win 394 seats. Despite the fact that the Labour leadership had stood aside in the previous election in 1918, and had failed to place themselves at the head of the revolt developing within Ireland, the 1920 elections revealed the potential support which existed for working class representation.
On 21 July 1920, prominent Unionists addressed Protestant workers in the Belfast shipyards and called for a ‘Holy War’ to drive out the ‘Catholic traitors’. In the days following, mobs attacked Catholic areas, with seventeen killed and thousands driven from their homes. Pogroms against Catholics in the north east continued for months and a number of Protestants were also killed in reprisals. Not only Catholics, but also socialists and active trade-unionists were driven from their jobs and homes, including so-called ‘rotten Prods’, and threatened with death if they returned. At the end of this upheaval there was not one Catholic working in the shipyard.
The National Union of Railwaymen, in a resolution at a conference in Belfast, condemned the pogroms and called for workers’ unity. A delegation from the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners spoke to the Belfast shipyard workers’ and attempted to defuse the situation. Aside from a few courageous efforts, however, there was a lack of an overall lead from the trade unions and from the labour movement generally throughout Britain and Ireland.
The partition card
Faced with a drawn-out guerrilla campaign; international opprobrium at British brutality, especially from the large Irish-American community; the economic slump following world war one; restive populations in other parts of the Empire; and waves of industrial and social unrest across Ireland and Britain, the Westminster government moved towards imposing a ‘constitutional settlement’ in Ireland, exploiting the sectarian conflict in the North. In December 1920 the Government of Ireland Act was passed, stipulating two separate parliaments, one in the North and one in the South.
The Act was foisted on Ireland by British imperialism primarily in order to divide and disorientate the workers’ movement. The Act meant the island would be divided (‘partitioned’) into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland (which would later become known as the Irish Free State). Northern Ireland would consist of the six northern counties (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone) and Southern Ireland was to be made up of the remaining 26 counties. Each region was to have a limited Home Rule parliament. Elections for the new parliaments were to be held in May 1921.
Unionists grudgingly accepted the Act because most of Ulster would still be part of the United Kingdom and they had a secure Protestant majority in the six counties (65% Protestant, 35% Catholic). Northern Catholics were left isolated and terrorised in Northern Ireland, the targets of ongoing sectarian violence as the reactionary Unionist state consolidated itself. In the election of March 1921 to the new Northern Ireland parliament, the Ulster Unionist Party, led by James Craig, a company director and land-owner, won 40 of the 52 seats.
The republican movement rejected the Act completely but in a show of strength Sinn Féin stood in the ‘Home Rule’ elections in the south and won a landslide victory. They boycotted the new Dublin parliament and continued to meet as the Dáil.
The Anglo-Irish War continued. But by mid-1921, both the British government and IRA realised that they had reached a military stalemate. A truce was called in July 1921 and negotiations were held in London. De Valera led a delegation to London to discuss terms. What they were offered amounted to token independence. Air and naval facilities were to be granted to Britain. Rather than creating a fully independent republic, the Treaty created an Irish Free State that was still a dominion of the British Empire. Opponents of the treaty objected to the remaining link and to the loss of the six Northern counties.
De Valera rejected these proposals. In October a new delegation led by Arthur Griffith went to negotiate with Lloyd George, who threatened that if they did not sign the treaty the British would embark on a course of all-out war ‘within three days’. Griffith and other compromising petit bourgeois republican leaders agreed to the British terms. They could see no prospect of victory in the short term. In 1921, Michael Collins estimated that the IRA had only 2,000-3,000 fighters to rely upon at any one time and they faced a severe shortage of ammunition.
Only the working class could have led a successful struggle against imperialism. The middle class Sinn Féin leaders had no perspective for the mobilisation of the workers, let alone Protestant workers. This was the role of the labour movement but its leadership had abjectly failed to carry it out from 1918 onwards.
On 6 December 1921, the Sinn Féin delegation to Downing Street put their names on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, accepting the creation of the border. Many rank and file working class republicans who had led the guerrilla struggle felt betrayed while business figures and Church leaders pressed for acceptance. The Church and Irish bosses’ owned newspapers framed the Anglo-Irish Treaty to the war-weary masses as a choice between peace and a return to stability or a resumption of guerrilla warfare and a return of Crown forces.
Dáil Éireann narrowly voted 64-57 in favour of the treaty on 7 January 1922. Pro-Treaty members of the Dáil (Teachtai Dála – TDs) argued that partition was only temporary. British regiments started to depart and internees were released. A bitterly fought general election in June saw more pro-Treaty than anti-Treaty TDs elected. Around 250,000 voted for other parties, mostly Labour (which polled 21.3%), who all supported the Treaty.
Reflecting on the Treaty, Sean Murray, a young northern IRA volunteer at the time and later general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, described it as “a compromise fraught with disastrous consequences to Ireland” that demonstrated that the Irish elite “love their country but they loved their class more”.
The IRA split, with the majority rejecting the Treaty. The pro-Treaty section formed the new Free State army. anti-Treaty forces established a separate headquarters in the Four Courts building in Dublin. A tense standoff ensued. In June 1922 retired general Henry Wilson was assassinated in London. British authorities demanded action and Michael Collins accepted the offer of British artillery and began the bombardment of the Four Courts. A week’s street fighting left 315 dead, 250 of them civilians. Civil war ensued.
The Free State conducted a ruthless campaign, invoking ‘military committees’ to carry out extrajudicial killings. Seventy-seven IRA members were executed. Free State forces singled out Liam Mellows, an influential left anti-Treaty IRA leader. Writing from prison before his execution, Mellows condemned the Labour leaders who “had it in their power to fashion that Republic as they wished – ‘a workers and peasants republic’.” By their acceptance of the Treaty “they have betrayed not alone the Irish republic but the labour movement in Ireland and the cause of the workers and peasants throughout the world”.
Overall the anti-Treaty forces were dominated by pro-capitalist leaders, like Eamonn de Valera, who mainly wanted better terms with Britain. The IRA pursued a largely military policy that lacked coherence. The civil war ended in April 1923, with the anti-Treaty IRA defeated. When de Valera led a section of the defeated anti-Treatyites into the Dáil, in 1927, Sinn Féin and the IRA split.
One hundred years on
The effects of the civil war lasted for decades in the south, as the successors of the pro and anti-Treaty sides, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, dominated Irish politics. They presided over an impoverished state, mass emigration and domination of everyday life by the Catholic Church.
Over the last few elections however both pro-capitalist parties have seen their vote consistently fall and, following the contest in February 2020, they were forced to enter a formal coalition agreement for the first time. The very future of Fianna Fail is now in question. The urbanisation and modernisation of Ireland have seen huge changes, including important advances for women and the once all-powerful Catholic Church pushed back. At the same time, the Labour Party has long ceased to represent the working class. The creation of a mass party of the working class with bold socialist policies remains a key goal.
In the North, the institutional discrimination and repression of Catholics finally exploded into the civil rights struggle in the late 1960s. Brutal state repression and the failure of the reformist labour and trade union movement to offer a lead saw a generation of Catholic working class youth turn to the individual terror campaign of the Provisional IRA. After nearly thirty years of conflict, a negotiated settlement led to the Good Friday Agreement and the power-sharing Assembly was established. But under capitalism nothing has been fundamentally resolved and sectarian divisions remain.
The hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Northern Ireland state is fraught with tensions. The two main ruling parties in the Assembly, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), cannot agree on how or if at all to mark the event. Added to the mix, the Johnson government’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union resulted in a customs border drawn up in the Irish Sea that has left Protestants fearful about their future in the UK. As the Catholic population is predicted by many to become a majority in the North, Sinn Féin campaigns for a ‘border poll’ and aims to be in government in the South after the next general election. Moves towards another referendum on Scottish independence will also exacerbate uncertainty and sectarian divisions. At the same time, any moves towards a ‘hardening’ of the border in Ireland open the way to strong nationalist opposition and growth of ‘dissident’ armed republican groups.
In the age of nuclear arms and with decades of sharp industrial decline, Northern Ireland does not have the same military-strategic and economic importance for the British ruling class as it did in the 1920s. But the Frankenstein’s monster of sectarianism, created and nurtured by British colonialism and imperialism, cannot be simply wished away. One hundred years after the Northern Ireland state was born out of sectarian violence and state repression, protests and riots in many Loyalist areas have taken place, including clashes between Catholic and Protestant youth at ‘interfaces’ in Belfast and armed police vehicles on the streets. Yet the tradition of workers’ action is also alive. Strike action by bus workers across Northern Ireland facing physical attacks took place during the April riots. They were supported by the largest union, NIPSA. A leading NIPSA activist and Militant Left (CWI Ireland) supporter addressed a bus workers Belfast rally on 8 April, calling for workers’ unity to stop a slide towards communities being ripped apart.
These courageous steps need to be taken on board by the whole workers’ movement. And only by drawing on the lessons of Ireland’s revolutionary past and by creating strong independent working class political forces with a programme of class unity and for socialism can the bitter sectarian divisions finally be overcome.