In 32 Counties, Kieran Allen shows that Irish unity is back on the agenda, if an anti-sectarian socialist politics can transform south and north, finds Chris Bambery

Kieran Allen, 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland (Pluto Press 2021), 224pp.

If there is one book you need to read to grasp what’s going on in Ireland, and Northern Ireland specifically, it must be Kieran Allen’s 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland. The recent loyalist riots against the post-Brexit border, which has come into existence between Northern Ireland and Britain, and the centenary of the creation of the six-county state and the partition of Ireland, have turned attention towards the possibility of a united Ireland.

When addressing the Irish question the brick wall that most people hit is that violence in Northern Ireland is a result of a religious and communal hatred so long established it is beyond understanding. This view, encouraged during The Troubles of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, is carefully cultivated to absolve Britain from any responsibility.

What Kieran starts from is that sectarianism in the north of Ireland was fostered in the nineteenth century by Britain to divide and rule, as it did across its empire. It was then used at the start of the last century to ensure Britain retained an imperial presence when it was forced out of the rest of Ireland by Sinn Fen’s electoral success, the IRA’s guerrilla war and popular, mass mobilisation.

The sectarian state

For selfish strategic and economic reasons it connived with Belfast’s industrialists to create a six-county state, excluding three of the historic counties of Ulster, to create a seemingly irremovable majority support for the Unionist Party. This faction ruled Northern Ireland from 1921 until 1972 as a one-party state, excluding the Catholic minority population. It was born amidst sectarian violence in which the Catholic minority suffered the greatest share of deaths, forced evictions and exclusion from work. Discrimination against that minority was institutionalised from the start within the new state.

The Belfast area was the one industrialised area of Ireland, tied into an economic triangle with Clydeside and Lancashire. The Unionists were able to convince Protestant workers, who dominated skilled labour to the exclusion of Catholics, that their access to these jobs and their long-term security depended on separating from the rest of Ireland which wanted to break from Britain. It used the sectarian Orange Order to raise the spectre of a Catholic-dominated state down south taking control and imposing ‘Rome Rule’.

Kieran points out that this sectarianism was fragile when Protestant and Catholic workers came together to fight over economic and social issues. However, in the absence of a political voice which combined the need for workers’ unity with opposition to partition and the sectarian state, such unity could be, and was, broken by the Unionists, the state apparatus and the Orange Order. This was aided by the acceptance of partition by the Northern Ireland Labour Party and trade-union officialdom.

What Kieran does is show three things. First, from its inception in 1921, Northern Ireland’s economy hit trouble and permanent decline set in. It was from the start a drain on the UK. Its strategic importance lessened after World War Two also, fading to nothing today. Secondly, sectarianism did not benefit any worker in Northern Ireland. Protestant workers might feel superior to their Catholic counterparts, but their wages were, and are, lower than British workers, unemployment greater and conditions worse. Thirdly, what would become the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland mirrored each other in many ways. While the Catholic church dominated social provision and social policy in the south, things were similar in the north.

Both sets of bigots could, and still do, agree over matters such as abortion, divorce and LGBT rights. Both governments reacted with repression when republicans tried to use military means to overturn the partition settlement. Unionist leaders knew the Dublin government might sometimes attack partition in words, but their priority was establishing their state and creating a new nationalism based on that entity.

The Troubles and after

When Northern Ireland blew apart in 1968 and 1969, because the Unionists unleashed its armed police on civil-rights marchers, there was a great deal of support in the Republic. After Bloody Sunday in January 1972 there was a general strike there and the British embassy in Dublin was burned down by protesters.

But loyalist bombings in Dublin and Monaghan (the worst of the Troubles) and the rise of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland meant people turned away from this, accepting the idea that in the Black North there was madness – thus blaming ordinary people rather than those in London responsible for partition and the creation of a sectarian state. The same process occurred in Britain.

The Provisional IRA first thought they could quickly force Britain out of Northern Ireland, then recognised it would require a long war. Also they saw that they needed popular support in the Republic and that, while Britain could not defeat them, neither could they defeat Britain. The stage was set for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and a permanent cessation of the military struggle.

Nonetheless, in the past 21 years Northern Ireland has remained divided. Housing segregation remains as do ‘peace’ walls between the communities. Politically there has been change. The once mighty Unionist Party has been totally eclipsed by the petty bourgeois, lower order Democratic Unionist Party, and Sinn Fein dominates within the nationalist population.

Demographically the 2021 census may well show Northern Ireland has today a Catholic majority; Belfast already does. Unionists and the more extreme loyalists feel threatened. They know Britain has no need of them. Brexit brought this to a head, or more specifically Boris Johnston’s promise to the DUP that there would be no border between Northern Ireland and Britain. They believed him; he lied. What Brexit also did was to bring back an obvious solution, an end to partition.

This brings us to the crux of the book. Irish unity is clearly on the agenda, but what sort of united Ireland? The Dublin government, made of the two traditional ruling parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, plus the Greens, is hesitant about incorporating Northern Ireland with a section of the population hostile to the whole scheme. It fears de-stabilising the pro-business state it has created with low taxation for business and other incentives for foreign investors.

Would a united Ireland mean the extension of the National Health Service across the whole of Ireland or an end to the control the Catholic church retains of schooling and health services in the south? The answer from the Dublin government and their business pals is a clear no.

An agenda for unity

It’s here that Kieran points to the biggest change in Ireland, particularly in the Republic; the rise of mass movements which have secured abortion rights, gay marriage and divorce, which took on child abuse by Catholic clergy and refused to pay water rates in a mass campaign of non-payment.

In 1921 the southern state was rural and conservative. Today it is urban and the outlook of working folk is more like that in London, Paris or Berlin. That’s matched by a similar change among younger people in the north facing a low skill, low-pay economy with growing precarious jobs. Protestants and Catholics can recognise each other have common interests. They saw too, over an issue like abortion, that they had the same interests whether in the north or the south.

Two years ago the workforce at Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast occupied against closure. Once it had employed 30,000 workers, but by 2019 only 121 workers remained. The shipyard with its mighty cranes was once a symbol of Northern Ireland’s industrial might. Yet, it was also a scene of sectarian violence when the relatively small number of Catholics working there were forced out in 1912 and in 1920.

But in 2019 support flowed in from across Ireland, while those in the occupation welcoming workers who’d travelled from Dublin, Wexford and elsewhere in the south with open arms. Kieran can also, rightly, point to the success of the radical-left People Before Profit organisation on both sides of the border as a reflection of this change and as the carrier of future hope.

What Kieran does in this book is argue for a return to the politics of the great Irish socialist, James Connolly, who linked the national question to the fight for social and economic justice. That meant not staying silent on sectarianism and calling out British imperialism for its role in maintaining division.

Achieving Irish unity requires returning to that agenda. It will not be achieved by a sectarian head count in the north or by a ‘parity of esteem’ which somehow accepts Orangeism as the ‘culture’ and identity of Protestant workers. Nor through a neoliberal vision of Ireland based on low taxation (or no taxation) for multinational capital awash with freeports, precarious jobs and the rest.

Unity will encounter real obstacles. Kieran reminds us that British imperialism is still a reality; the UK is in the second tier of world powers but it’s still a power. He points out that for simple reasons of prestige it will not want to lose Northern Ireland, or Scotland, where it does have economic and strategic interests.

The Good Friday Agreement requires the London government to call an all-Ireland referendum and it would do so at a time of its own choosing, one where there is the best chance of Irish unity being voted down. As in the 2014 Scottish referendum, it would employ every possible scare tactic and dirty trick. Nor would the current Irish government be an ally to those championing unity.

Irish unity is back on the agenda. This book explains why and how it can be achieved.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.