Workers Hammer No. 238
Northern Ireland: imperialist peace fraud and Catholic oppression
9 April 2016
In the article on the six counties in the latest issue of Workers Hammer [no 234, Spring 2016] you write that in 1993 you pointed that any imperialist deal “will necessarily be at the expense of the oppressed Catholic minority” and that in 2016 “Northern Ireland remains a sectarian hell-hole premised on the continued subjection [sic] of Catholics.”
The 1998 Belfast Agreement has certainly reinforced the Union and copper fastened partition but it has considerably improved the position of Catholics within existing constitutional arrangements. The old ‘Orange State’ is gone.
In 2008 researchers from Queen’s University Belfast examined in detail the changes that happened since 1998 and concluded that Catholics gained more from the peace process than Protestants. (cfr. Research shows Catholics gained more from NI peace process than Protestants, The Belfast Telegraph, 31 March 2008) A striking illustration of this is that by 2014 the median hourly wage rate for working age Protestants was £9.23 while Catholics earned £9.63. (Claire McNeilly, Number of Protestants working full-time to be eclipsed by Catholics in labour market first in Northern Ireland, The Belfast Telegraph, 31 March 2014).
The new nationalist bourgeoisie and republican middle class are the clear winners of the peace process in social and economic terms.
The richest part of Belfast, the Malone Road now has a nationalist majority, and the majority of customers for private jets came from that community, which made one commentator pertinently ask: “What did Bobby Sands kill himself anyway? Was it so that his fellow northern Catholics could own jets? Drive BMWs?” (Jim Cusack, Who’s got the bling here — Catholics or Protestants? The Belfast Telegraph, 18 June 2008) In 2001, only two of the 20 most affluent areas in Northern Ireland had a nationalist majority, by 2011 six of them had. As Paul Bew noted, this has lead to a shift in the nationalist population from a mood of ‘rage’ to one of ‘vanity’.
Catholics have never been as comfortable within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as they are today. This is one of the reasons that in various opinion polls unification as favorite constitutional arrangement has persistently declined since 1998. Catholics are no longer ‘second class’ subjects in the six counties.
Liam Ó Ruairc
Workers Hammer replies: Liam Ó Ruairc joins the British and Irish states, the British Labour Party, Sinn Féin and a host of reformist left groups in promoting the lie that the imperialist-sponsored “peace process” has brought an end to Orange supremacy and the oppression of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Ó Ruairc talks of a handful of Catholics owning BMWs and private jets while retailing the despicable imperialist lie that IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands “killed himself”. Bobby Sands was the victim of “calculated, imperialist murder”, as we wrote at the time, honouring him as “a martyr in the struggle against brutal imperialist oppression” (“Westminster butchers”, Spartacist Britain no 32, May 1981).
National oppression is not reducible to economic conditions and affects all layers of an oppressed minority, albeit not to the same degree. Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster recently slapped down the elementary demand for Irish language rights raised by former “power-sharing” partner Sinn Féin with the viciously chauvinist retort: “If you feed the crocodile they just come back for more” (belfasttelegraph.co.uk, 7 February). The Catholic population as a whole remains subject to pervasive segregation and degradation and targeted for cop terror and surveillance.
Take as an example the town of Newry near the border with the southern Republic. This mainly Catholic town was synonymous with cross-border shopping even at the height of the “Troubles”. Since the “peace” deal and the reduction in border checkpoints, the number of shoppers has dramatically increased. However, a brief look at statistics obtained from the state security apparatus through a Freedom of Information request by the Republican group éirígí shows a different side to life in Newry: “Between 1st January 2009 to 31st January 2015 a total of 3,957 people were stopped, searched and questioned under the ‘Terrorism’ Act and Justice & Security Act”. In January 2016, the Tactical Support Group, a more heavily armed branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), set up 46 checkpoints in the Newry area on a single day. And this in a small town which is not exactly a hotbed of dissident Republican activity.
In 2014 there were nearly twice as many cops per capita in Northern Ireland as in England and Wales. The PSNI, successor to the notoriously brutal and anti-Catholic Royal Ulster Constabulary, is a paramilitary outfit whose “anti-terrorism” operations target Catholics. And the increase in the number of Catholics in the police force, from about eight per cent decades ago to just over 30 per cent, does not change that any more than the number of black cops in the US changes the racist nature of the police forces there. In addition to this paramilitary force, the British state officially maintains a garrison of thousands of British troops, while also deploying members of the murderous Special Reconnaissance Regiment on covert missions directed against Republicans. All British troops and bases out of Northern Ireland now!
Wallowing in the myth that the Orange state is gone, Ó Ruairc does not even take notice of this vast machinery of anti-Catholic repression. Instead he plucks a handful of selective economic statistics from the Belfast Telegraph to demonstrate how “comfortable” Catholics are today. He makes much of figures that show that the miserly hourly wage rates for Catholics are now slightly higher than those for Protestants and that more Catholics are in full-time work than Protestants. In fact, the study quoted — by Professor Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool — ties the wage differential to the increasing number of Catholics in employment in the North, noting: “In 1992, 70% of all working age Protestants were in employment compared to 54% of working age Catholics but, 22 years on, those rates had moved to 67% and 66%.”
Shirlow’s explanation is simple: “the Protestant population is getting older and removing themselves from the labour force by going into retirement”, and over the last 20 to 30 years, “more Catholics have been joining the labour force due to a higher birth rate”. Faced with these changing demographics, the capitalists in Northern Ireland are now willing to employ more Catholics. Ó Ruairc further assures us that six of the 20 most affluent areas are now majority Catholic, but the 2013 Peace Monitoring Report rounds out that picture, noting: “Sixteen of the top twenty most disadvantaged wards have a majority Catholic population”. The Belfast Telegraph (16 May 2013) summed up the findings of a Northern Ireland census thus: “Catholics in Northern Ireland are more likely to be unemployed or living in overcrowded conditions with worse health than Protestants”.
We noted in our “Theses on Ireland” (Spartacist [English-language edition] no 24, Autumn 1977) that “Protestant communalism does have a material basis in the marginal privileges enjoyed by the Protestant workers” but the “working class as a whole has some of the worst wages, unemployment and housing in the British Isles”. As we wrote in the Theses:
“We demand full democratic rights for the Catholic minority and an end to discrimination in housing and hiring. But such demands must be linked to class demands which transcend the bounds of bourgeois democracy. Without the demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours, for example, the call to end discrimination will simply imply leveling in an already economically depressed situation. The relevant partial, negative, democratic and economic demands must be integrated into the revolutionary transitional program which transcends the capitalist framework of economism and democratic reformism.”
Ó Ruairc is far from unique in amnestying Orange supremacy in Northern Ireland. Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party, as well as its Irish co-thinkers, are deeply chauvinist outfits whose “anti-sectarian” posture is simply pro-imperialist economism and a cover for support to Loyalism. The Taaffeites supported the imperialist “peace” deal to the point of openly arguing that Catholics are no longer oppressed. The late Peter Hadden of the Socialist Party in Ireland wrote: “the national question has moved on. In 1968-9 there was a Northern Catholic minority which was oppressed by the British and the Protestant state.” But, he continued, “we have had the collapse of the Protestant state” and “It is now increasingly becoming a question of two minorities” (Socialist Voice, 23 July 1999).
In sharp contradiction to the fantasies pushed by the Taaffeites, and by Liam Ó Ruairc, the Catholics are an oppressed minority in the North (albeit close to half of the population) and form part of the Irish Catholic nation in the South. The Protestants, while not yet a nation, are a distinct community. They are not part of the Irish Catholic nation and have historically defined themselves in contradistinction to it, as well as to the Scottish and English nations. In such circumstances, where two peoples contest the same territory, to call for self-determination for one group under capitalism means denying this right to the other. We oppose the call for an “independent Ulster”, which means supporting Orange supremacy. We also oppose the forcible reunification of the island, which would make the Protestants an oppressed minority in a Catholic clericalist state and thus simply reverse the terms of oppression. To resolve the centuries-long oppression of Ireland, leaving open what form a democratic resolution of the Protestant question will take, what is needed is a workers republic in Ireland within a voluntary federation of socialist republics in the British Isles.