Chapter 2 – The Unionist State

Did partition mean, as is often argued, that the violence of the Troubles was inevitable? Was the North, from that time, set on a slow burning fuse which, after 50 years, was certain to ignite into sectarian bloodshed?

The answer is no. Even partition itself was not unavoidable. The fact that the British ruling class used the tactic of divide and rule did not mean that this weapon was bound to succeed. During the Nineteenth Century, there was an uneven development of the Irish economy. While the south stagnated, the north-east developed a powerful industrial base through textiles, shipbuilding and engineering.

The owners of these industries, together with the local landed aristocracy, considered themselves an integral part of the British ruling class. They provided the local leadership of the Unionists.

The largely Protestant workforce of these industries could have gone either way in the pre-partition period. They were instinctively opposed to the capitalist and reactionary leaders of unionism, the people who were their exploiters week in and week out. But they saw nothing to benefit them in the program of Sinn Fein for a capitalist independent Ireland. Rather, they feared that protectionist measures would close their industries.

If the trade union and Labour leaders in Ireland had opted to fight independently for a socialist Ireland, and for unity with the British working class in their struggle for socialism in Britain, the fears of Protestant workers could have been allayed and the working class united. As it was, despite their earlier socialist rhetoric, leaders like O’Brien decided not to contest the 1918 general election so as to leave the field clear for Sinn Fein. From that moment, they took no independent position in the national struggle but instead gave support and assistance to Sinn Fein. They said, “First, let Sinn Fein win independence, and only then will the Labour movement put forward its social program.”

This allowed the Unionist bosses to prey on the doubts and anxieties of Protestant workers and gave the British ruling class the opportunity to successfully wield the weapon of divide and rule and impose partition.

The working class had the power to prevent partition and the sectarian pogroms of the early 1920s. What they lacked was a leadership committed to building a socialist alternative. Likewise, during the fifty year history of the northern state until the start of the Troubles, the working class had many opportunities to unite and mount an offensive to defeat their sectarian enemies.

Throughout this time, the Unionist leaders regularly spoke in alarmed tones about the threat from nationalists and republicans to their state. The aim was to create a siege mentality among Protestants to prevent social and class issues coming to the surface. The truth was that no threat, as described by unionists, actually existed.

Articles 2 and 3 of the southern Irish constitution, in force since 1937, claimed the right of the southern parliament to rule the whole country. Although denounced by unionists ever since, these Articles have been no more than window dressing. The southern Irish ruling class, the ranchers and business interests who took charge of the new state, while they have paid lip service to the idea of reunification, have had neither the intention or even the desire to bring it about.

They have had enough trouble keeping the population at home in check without adding one million hostile Protestants to their worries. From time to time, southern politicians have launched verbal crusades against partition – but mainly to divert attention from the unemployment and poverty under their own noses in Dublin and elsewhere.

True, in the North there were nationalists who consistently won seats in rural areas. But they were a weak and ineffective opposition to Unionism, sometimes taking part in the northern parliament, sometimes abstaining. In its entire existence the Nationalist Party, under its various guises and titles, succeeded in getting only one piece of legislation passed in the northern parliament -the Wild Birds Act of 1931!

Far from feeling under the ‘threat’ of the nationalists, the unionists were glad to maintain them as a ‘pet’ opposition. If Catholics voted for nationalists and Protestants for unionists the unionist majority was permanently secure. In 1929, Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, made clear that he preferred parliament to be made up of “men who are for the union on the one hand or who are against it and want to go into a Dublin parliament on the other”.[7]

The idea of a military threat from the IRA was no less a myth, a myth from time to time invoked by Unionists to scare Protestants into voting for them.

By the late 1920s the remnants of the IRA were militarily defeated and reduced to a small and declining group in the south. They would never again become a force in the southern state.

They had no real basis in the North either. Not until the late 1930s did they attempt a serious campaign against partition. Launched in 1938, this took the form of arms raids and other sporadic activity in the North and a bombing campaign in Britain.

A bomb in Coventry in August 1939, which killed five and injured fifty, followed a few weeks later by Britain’s entry into the second world war, effectively ended the English campaign. Activity in the North had simply petered out a year or so later. The Unionists’ response, which was to intern suspected republicans, was to continue until the end of the war.

After more than a decade of virtual inactivity a revamped IRA launched a new campaign in 1956. This was begun with ‘flying column’ style raids across the border but it was easily contained by the state. It became known as the border campaign because virtually all of the activity took place in the rural border areas. Military actions soon tailed off, and in 1962, the IRA leadership accepted reality and called it off. In total there had been 500 incidents. 18 people had been killed – there have been single incidents in the recent, and more bloody, troubles where the death toll has been as high.

Class Discrimination

The real threat to unionism, and to right wing nationalism, was that the working class would unite in social and political struggle. Only if politics were counted in terms of religion did unionism command a majority. In terms of class, the working class were – and still are – the majority and the most powerful force in society. Discrimination against Catholics and against working class Protestants was always the policy of unionism. As Belfast trade unionist and ‘socialist’ Paddy Devlin states in his autobiography ‘Straight Left’; “The appalling discrimination practiced by the unionists against Catholics was as nothing compared to their class bias, for the ordinary working class Protestants were only a little better treated than their Catholic counterparts.”[8]

Despite the setback of partition the labor movement began quickly to regroup and recover in the North. Discontent at the terrible social conditions endured by workers resulted in three Labour candidates being elected to Stormont in 1925. The unionist response was to abolish Proportional Representation so as to ensure sectarian voting and try to keep Labour out.

Right up until the civil rights explosion in the late 1960s, the unionists maintained a property qualification for voting in local government elections. If you did not pay rates you had no vote. On the other hand if you were a businessman who paid rates for a number of business premises you got one vote for each. A quarter of a million potential voters, an estimated 60% of them Protestant, were disqualified by this unjust procedure. It was Labour, not unionism or indeed nationalism, who lost out.

No amount of unionist obstruction could quell the class struggle or prevent the powerful tendency for Catholic and Protestant workers to unite.

October, 1932 provided an outstanding example of the class unity, militancy and determination that was also seen in countless lesser battles. Unemployed workers who were denied benefit were forced to apply to Poor Law Guardians, an outmoded nineteenth century institution dominated by unionists, for work on Outdoor Relief Schemes. In return, those chosen were paid a pittance.

In October, 1932, the Outdoor Relief workers went on strike. Although only directly involving a small number of people, the issue touched thousands and there were mass demonstrations of Catholics and Protestants in their support.

State repression led to rioting and at one point workers in the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill Road areas of Belfast jointly defended these areas against the notorious B Specials, the entirely Protestant police reserve. Two workers, one a Protestant the other a Catholic, were killed. The working class of Belfast responded magnificently, over 100,000 lining the streets for their funerals. At this point, the government were forced to intervene and press the Poor Law Guardians to grant concessions.

Engineering Strikes

During the second World War another powerful industrial movement look place. In 1942 a dispute began in the recently established Shorts aircraft factory in Belfast, spread to other factories, and was won.

Two years later a more bitter dispute look place. 20,000 engineering workers came out for higher wages. When the government jailed five strike leaders accusing them of sabotaging the war effort, other workers began to come out in support. A general strike was only averted when an appeal quickly led to all five being released.

Industrial unity was matched by political unity. The Northern Ireland Labour Party won two seats in the 1945 election to the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont. Its 66,000 votes represented a significant inroad into the unionist vote. The Westminster elections of that year, and the local elections of the following year, also saw significant Labour advances.

Profound changes took place during the 1950s and 1960s. These strengthened the labor movement and cemented a growing unity between Catholic and Protestant workers. By the late 1960s the conditions were ripe for a socialist movement which could have toppled unionism.

Part of the change took place in the South. By the late 1950s the Irish capitalists were forced to recognize that their attempt to build a strong economy using protectionist measures to keep out foreign goods and preserve the Irish market for Irish products, was a failure.

The 1950s and 1960s were decades of economic boom for the main capitalist countries. Protectionist policies only ensured that Irish capitalism largely missed out on the first part of this boom. The economy was little more than stagnant in the ’50s, there was chronic unemployment and 400,000 people were forced to emigrate seeking work.

Between 1954 and 1957 the Irish Labour Party participated in a coalition government, with the right wing Fine Gael, which presided over this disastrous economic situation. Then in 1957 the supposedly more ‘republican’ of the political parties in the South, Fianna Fail, came to power. They set about dropping protectionism, beginning by opening a free trade zone in Shannon, County Clare, where foreign companies could set up and export without tariffs. In 1965 the Irish and British governments signed a free trade agreement which effectively opened up the whole Irish market to British goods and to British companies.

These developments were an important factor in bringing about a – change in the attitude of the British ruling class to Ireland. The reasons which, from their point of view, made partition necessary in 1920 no longer applied. The economic boom meant that the strikes and big social movements of the pre-partition days were not an immediate prospect. The military/strategic reasons for partition and the 1921 Treaty with the South had long gone. In the epoch of long range nuclear submarines the issue of access to Irish ports was unimportant. In any case Britain was a declining military power.

Industry was no longer concentrated in the North. Rather free trade increased the economic importance of the South- by 1969 it was the fifth biggest market for British companies.

By this time the British ruling class would have preferred to with- draw from Northern Ireland. They favored an end to partition and the creation of a united capitalist Ireland which they could dominate by economic, not by direct political or military means. This has been their preferred option ever since. The problem, from their point of view was that the sectarian divisions they had helped whip up presented them with an insurmountable obstacle. The sectarian state in the North could not be dismantled without provoking Protestant resistance and civil war.

Checkmated in this way by their own past crimes in Ireland, the British ruling class might aspire to rid themselves of the North, but their every attempt to turn this aspiration into reality, would flounder on the rock of Protestant resistance.

Important changes also look place in the North. When the post war Labour government introduced the foundations of a welfare state, including a free health service, the Unionists had no choice but to reluctantly follow suit. Education reform, which opened the way to higher education to young people including Catholics from working class homes, was to have an important effect in producing a new layer of radical youth in the 1960s who would not accept the status quo. A policy of grants to attract foreign industry did have a certain effect in drawing in new companies.

But for the mass of people these changes only scratched the surface. Poverty, unemployment, discrimination and injustice remained as pillars of the state. The full effects of the post-war economic boom were never felt in Northern Ireland. Mirroring what was happening south of the border 100,000 people, some 7% of the total population, were forced to emigrate. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a sharp economic down-turn with massive redundancies, especially in the shipbuilding industry, the former pride and joy of Northern Ireland industry. Unemployment rose to 10% at the end of the ’50s.

In 1962 the unionist Prime Minister, Brookeborough, who had been in charge since the second world war was replaced by another landowning aristocrat, Captain Terence O’Neill. O’Neill was supposed to be the liberal, reforming face of unionism.

O’Neill promised changes but delivered nothing. The discrimination stayed, the gerrymandering of elections stayed, the property qualification for voting stayed. So did the B Specials, the repressive Special Powers Act and the Test of the anti-Catholic and anti-labor measures introduced since 1920.

At the top it was a question of more of the same but at the bottom, things were changing, old sectarian divisions were becoming blurred and in some cases breaking down. New housing estates tended to be mixed; the new foreign companies had no interest in continuing the Protestants-only policy of many local employers. The main tendency of the time was towards greater integration of the two communities.

This meant a falling away of support for the extremes of unionism and nationalism. The IRA’ s border campaign was met with indifference in the Catholic working class areas of Belfast and Derry. When it ended, the IRA no longer existed as a force. The remnants of the organisation shifted to the left, influenced by the Communist Party, and concluded correctly that such military campaigns could not succeed. In the unionist camp the Reverend Ian Paisley began his evangelical and political crusade in these years, campaigning on such issues as the ‘Romeward’ trend of the Protestant Church of Ireland. Most Protestants saw him as a crank.

In 1966 a small group of Protestants met in a bar in Belfast’s Shankill Road and decided to launch the Ulster Volunteer Force, borrowing the name from the paramilitary force created by unionists earlier in the century to resist Home Rule. In a brief ‘campaign’ they killed two Catholics and an elderly Protestant woman. Protestants and Catholics alike were outraged and when it was banned by the state and its leaders were arrested, this UVF disappeared.

These organisations and individuals were viewed by the mass of people as anachronisms who were fighting old sectarian battles hardly relevant any longer. It was to social and class issues which the majority of people were turning their attentions.

Northern Ireland Labour Party

In 1958 the NILP won four Belfast seats to the Northern Ireland (Stormont) parliament. As recession and redundancies hit home, the trade unions stepped up their support for Labour and in the next Stormont election the same four MPs were returned, all with increased majorities.

Politics, especially in Belfast, was becoming a close run thing between Labour and the Unionists. In 1962 the NILP polled 62,175 votes in Belfast, not far short of the Unionist total of 67,350. Overall the NILP together won 26% of the vote in this election. If the votes of other smaller Labour groupings are included, the total Labour vote was 32.8%.

There were similar successes in future elections, to Westminster in 1964 and 1966 and Stormont in 1965, although disillusionment with the policies of the right wing Labour government of Harold Wilson, elected in Britain in 1964, did cut across the growth of the NILP to some extent.

The NILP itself had a right wing leadership. On the issue of partition it accepted more of a unionist than a socialist position. Nonetheless, the growing radicalization of society drew a new layer to the party and it began to shift to the left.

In 1966 the party broke historic ground when, together with the local trade union leadership, it sent a delegation to meet the Stormont government and present them with demands for an end to religious discrimination and reform of the voting system. The Unionists simply said no.

In the South a similar leftward shift was taking place. The Irish Labour Party benefiting from being out of government for eight years, won 22 seats in the 1965 general election, its best performance since 1927.

1968 was the eve of the current Troubles. This year saw the radicalization of youth across Europe. It witnessed the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France, when 10 million workers went on strike, factories were occupied and youth fought with the police in Paris. It brought youth onto the streets in many countries in opposition to the war in Vietnam and other issues.

Young people in Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, were infected by this new mood of revolt. Meanwhile, among the working class, anger at the Labour government in Britain, who were implementing policies dictated by British capitalism, resulted in a new mood of militancy on the shop floor and a new wave of strikes.

The sectarian conflict which was to follow was certainly not inevitable. On the contrary the cards, at this moment, were stacked against the bigots. The initiative rested with the working class, with the trade unions and with Labour.


  1. Buckland. James Craig. Gill and McMillan, 1980. p 11.
  2. Devlin, Paddy. Straight Left: An Autobiography. Blackstaff Press, 1993. p 61.