Workers Hammer No. 243
Imperialist peace fraud 20 years on
Northern Ireland: Catholics under the cosh
British troops out!
Twenty years after the imperialist-imposed Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a sectarian Orange statelet. Premised on the continued presence of British troops, the Agreement copper-fastened sectarian divisions and perpetuated the oppression of the Catholic population. It has not done working-class Protestants any good, either.
Northern Ireland is more segregated than ever, with Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods divided by “peace” walls. More than 90 per cent of social housing is segregated and more than 90 per cent of children attend segregated schools. The reality of life for the oppressed Catholic minority was starkly underscored by this July’s Orange Order “marching season”.
The Eleventh Night bonfires and Twelfth of July marches, commemorating the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic James II in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, are not some quaint celebration of Protestant culture, but a rallying point for anti-Catholic terror. While the level of violence is less than during the Army’s 1969-2007 Operation Banner, this summer once again saw towering bonfires featuring signs calling to kill all Catholics. To underscore those threats, Irish tricolours and Republican election posters were placed on the bonfires before they were set alight. One also featured a sign saying “Fuck your Ballymurphy massacre inquiry”, referring to calls for an inquiry into the killing of eleven unarmed Catholics (including a priest and a 45-year-old mother of eight) by British soldiers in West Belfast in August 1971. The massacre is powerfully depicted in the new documentary by Callum Macrae, The Ballymurphy Precedent.
Government contractors required police protection to dismantle bonfires in Belfast that were deemed dangerously close to homes. In response the Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) declared that there would be serious disorder. Cars and a bus were hijacked and set on fire, blocking roads. Access was obstructed to Belfast City Airport and a major hospital. A bomb exploded in the Catholic Short Strand and there was an arson attack on a Catholic special needs school. The Loyalist-orchestrated violence resulted in no arrests and was barely mentioned in the British news.
In contrast, when rioting broke out in predominantly Catholic Derry the weekend before the Twelfth of July march, the capitalist state unleashed brutal repression. For six nights leading up to the Orange march, crowds of youths from the Catholic Bogside, some reportedly as young as eight, threw paint and petrol bombs at police. Criminally, bombs were also thrown at homes in the Protestant Fountain enclave. In response, hundreds of cops rampaged through the Bogside firing rubber bullets and, aided by the British Army, raiding houses and indiscriminately seizing people. One video shows a 16-year-old being taken from his home by heavily armed, balaclava-wearing police, his hands bound with cable ties. The youth was released after an interrogation in which “not a shred of evidence was put to him”, according to his legal representative. On the Twelfth itself, police penned local residents behind barricades while Orange Order bands marched provocatively through Catholic areas.
It is not at all clear what forces were behind the rioting. The PSNI blamed the so-called “New IRA”, and Republicans have certainly carried out indiscriminate attacks on Protestants in the past. In this case, Republican organisations from Sinn Féin to the dissident Saoradh were quick to condemn the communalist violence against the Fountain. A 29 July article in the Phoenix, a Dublin-based magazine of investigative journalism, hinted at possible involvement of security force provocateurs.
Noting the recent revelation that British police and intelligence services have been using youth under 16 in covert operations, the Phoenix observed:
“There is no previous tradition in Derry of the kind of sustained assault on the loyalist bastion on the west bank of the city, the Fountain estate, yet a large gang of youths was seen to roam apparently at will over several days and launch petrol bomb attacks on random Protestant targets across the security divide.”
The article pointed out that the groups carrying out such attacks “are highly feared in their immediate neighbourhoods, not just because of their access to weaponry and propensity for immediate violence but precisely because they are viewed as a breeding ground for spook informants”.
The mobilisation of British troops in the Bogside (site of 1972’s Bloody Sunday, when the Parachute Regiment killed 14 Catholic civilians) is a blunt reminder that, while no longer routinely used for street patrols, thousands of troops remain in Northern Ireland. PSNI chief constable George Hamilton defended the role of the army backing up the police and claimed it was “nothing out of the ordinary”.
British imperialism has brought centuries of exploitation, oppression and bloodshed to the island of Ireland. No good can come of the British presence; the existing tie between Northern Ireland and the British state can only be oppressive to the Irish Catholic population. The presence of imperialist forces is an obstacle to a proletarian class mobilisation and solution.
Marxists in Britain have a particular obligation to oppose their own ruling class and its state forces. We demand: All British troops and bases out of Northern Ireland! While this demand does not automatically ensure any advance in a revolutionary direction, it is a necessary starting point for a revolutionary, proletarian perspective in these islands.
Indiscriminate terror against the Protestant population, as with the petrol bombs thrown into the Fountain estate, in no way advances the struggle against Catholic oppression. Such attacks serve only to compact working-class Protestants behind the Loyalist bigots and are crimes from the standpoint of the proletariat. On the other hand, we defend Republicans in conflicts with the forces of the capitalist state or British imperialism (or the fascistic Loyalist paramilitaries). At the same time Marxists oppose the tactic of individual terror against state forces because it is antithetical to what is needed to liberate the working class and the oppressed. The actions of small groups or individuals cannot replace the necessary mobilisation of the mass of the proletariat.
For workers revolutions throughout the British Isles!
Working people in Northern Ireland as a whole suffer some of the worst living conditions in the British Isles, including wages and employment rates. With much of industry having closed down, the Protestant working class has taken it in the teeth while the Catholic population continues to face systematic discrimination and cop terror. While Southern Ireland recently repealed its anti-abortion Eighth Amendment, abortion is still almost completely illegal in the North, as is same-sex marriage. The interests of working people in Northern Ireland have long been subordinated to sectarian hostility and religious backwardness.
Intransigent opposition to all forms of national oppression is an essential part of the revolutionary internationalist programme. Northern Ireland was established as an Orange statelet by British imperialism in the 1921 partition of Ireland. Northern Catholics, part of the Irish nation, remain oppressed. But they live within the same territory as the Protestants — a distinct community which largely defines itself against the Irish Catholic nation and which fears becoming an oppressed minority within a united Ireland. As Leninists, we oppose the Irish nationalist programme of reunifying the six counties of Northern Ireland with the southern Catholic Irish bourgeois state. An equitable solution to the conflicting claims of the interpenetrated peoples of the North requires the overthrow of capitalism throughout the British Isles.
A leadership that can unite Catholic and Protestant workers in struggle against capitalist exploitation must base itself on defence of the oppressed Catholics and opposition to British imperialism. In contrast, the self-proclaimed Marxists of the Socialist Party denounce sectarianism on all sides with a pretence of even-handedness — which in practice amounts to the most grotesque denial of the oppression of Northern Ireland’s Catholic population. Consistently referring to the Orange marches as a question of “rights”, they adopt the language of Loyalist demagogues who defend displays of Protestant supremacy.
A 9 July article titled “Bonfire debate can ignite conflict”, on the website of the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland warns against dismissing “out of hand” Protestant claims that the Eleventh Night bonfires “are an important expression of their culture and identity and primarily a way for the community to come together”. It also equates the Orange sectarian bonfires with Catholic ones marking the anniversary of the British Army’s 1971 imposition of internment, in which more than 1000 alleged IRA sympathisers were detained without trial. Only those wilfully blind to oppression and the crimes of imperialism (or in thrall to pro-imperialist Labourism) could conflate the Eleventh Night bonfires celebrating imperialism and Catholic oppression with a protest against the military internment of opponents of British rule.
Some anti-internment bonfires include poppy wreaths, British Army regimental banners and the names of sadistic prison screws, but so what?! The police, prisons and army are the core of the capitalist state — an apparatus of organised violence that defends capitalist class rule. As such they are enemies not only of Catholics but also of Protestant workers. (Grotesquely, the Socialist Party considers cops and prison guards workers in uniform.) It’s no accident that the PSNI declared burning symbols of British imperialism a hate crime, but not the Loyalist bonfire threats to kill all Catholics.
The million-strong Protestant community is not one reactionary mass; it is differentiated by class as much as Irish Catholics are. The history of the workers movement in Northern Ireland includes significant examples of proletarian solidarity cutting across sectarian divisions. Examples include the 1919 Belfast engineers strike and the 1932 Outdoor Relief strike. More recently, postal workers went on strike for five days in January 2002 in response to the killing of their Catholic co-worker Daniel McColgan by Loyalist paramilitaries. However, such joint struggles have often been undermined by sectarian actions or diverted into class-collaboration by the trade union bureaucrats, as in 2002 (see Spartacist Ireland no 1, Spring/Summer 2002).
The defeat of the 1919 strike and the subsequent expulsion of Catholic workers, and reds, from the engineering industry helped lay the basis for Partition. In 1934, the Communist-influenced Republican Congress organised a group of Protestant workers from the Shankill Road to march in the annual Bodenstown commemoration of Wolfe Tone, the leader of the 1798 United Irishmen uprising. With banners including “Break the connection with capitalism”, this was an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist act by Protestant workers. It was rebuffed by the IRA, who tried to seize the “communistic” banners.
The crucial factor in forging lasting proletarian unity is a revolutionary workers party. It is necessary to construct a party which will combat every manifestation of oppression and as VI Lenin wrote in What is to be done? (1902) “generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation”. We seek to build such parties in Britain and Ireland in order to win the majority of the working class to the struggle for an Irish workers republic within a voluntary federation of the British Isles.
In the context of a socialist federation, the Protestants may in the future be voluntarily integrated into a common Irish nation, which they would at present vehemently reject; they may develop a more distinct national identity; or they may find a democratic accommodation outside the framework of strictly national solutions under proletarian rule. The decisive factor in the overall outcome will be the presence of Leninist vanguard parties, rooted in the proletariat of all the peoples of these isles.