Ireland and the politics of bigotry

When the Irish Catholic priest Fr. Hugh O’Donnell decided it was time to build a Catholic church in Belfast he had a problem: it costs a lot of money to build a church. The Catholic population of Belfast was too small and too poor to provide enough money, so if he had to rely on the Catholics alone it would take forever. He had to seek help elsewhere. So he asked the Protestants of Belfast to help him out. As you do.


The Belfast Protestants responded immediately with overwhelming generosity and on Sunday 30th May 1784, Belfast’s first Catholic Church, St. Mary’s, opened in Chapel Lane. It was a memorable day. When Fr. O’Donnell arrived to say mass, Captain Cunningham of the Irish Volunteers, together with his men in full uniform, provided a guard of honour for him, and about half of the people who attended mass that morning were Protestants. Later in the week a letter written by the priest appeared in the local paper expressing his heartfelt thanks to the Belfast Protestants for their support and solidarity.

Times have changed. Fast forward to the 1960’s and we see the beginning of three decades during which the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland made life a living hell for each other. For three decades no man, woman or child was safe from the murderous blitz of bullets and bombs which cost so many innocent lives and left a legacy of grief, pain and bitterness which will be recalled with anger by the people of the six counties for generations to come.

How could it have come to this? How could the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, who had once shown so much support and solidarity for each other, turn against each other in such an orgy of mutual and implacable hatred and lethal violence? We need to know the answer if we are ever going to put an end to the ugly blight of religious bigotry which has been a millstone around the necks of the working-class people of Northern Ireland, and to a lesser but still significant extent Scotland, for too many generations.

A little learning is a dangerous thing, as Alexander Pope so acutely observed. In order to get a full understanding of the situation, we must stand back and look at the whole picture, we must go right back to the time when Christianity first established itself in Ireland.

The Island at the End of the World

Few would deny that in the beginning, Christianity was beneficial to the people of Ireland. Palladius, the first Christian missionary, arrive on the island in 431. He was followed about thirty years later by the legendary St Patrick. Patrick and those who succeeded him expended a great deal of energy in establishing monasteries which served as excellent seats of learning. And the Irish were keen and quick to learn.

Those who went to study at the monasteries did not restrict themselves to spiritual matters; they also studied medicine and the classic works of the ancient Greek and Roman historians and philosophers. They made beautifully written copies of these works, which was fortunate, since the Roman Empire was being swept away, as the barbarian hordes spread to every corner of Western Europe.

Wherever they went the barbarians left a trail of devastation in their wake. Rome and other cities were looted, libraries were destroyed, and books were burned. But as civilization was laid waste in Western Europe, Ireland was mercifully spared. Thanks to the diligence of Irish students and monks, many ancient classical works and writings survived which would otherwise have been lost forever.

The monks of Ireland went forth to spread their learning throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and subsequently all over Europe, as far afield as Russia and Iceland. In what was left of civilized Europe in the wake of this wave of destruction, Ireland’s reputation and prestige grew enormously as a centre of education and culture. Thousands of students came to Ireland knowing there was no better place to study and learn.

The Irish thus played a major role in rekindling the flames of civilization in the aftermath of the barbarian rampage through Europe. Ireland fully deserved its reputation as the “land of saints and scholars”.

Saint Patrick Catholic Church Junction City Ohio Image NheyobSaint Patrick / Image: Nheyob

Until the end of the 8th century the only serious battles that the Irish had been involved in were the internecine feuds, brought about by the constant struggle of the various Irish clans to gain supremacy. But that all changed in 795, the fateful years when Ireland’s cultural development was rudely interrupted by the Vikings. Under pressure from lack of living space and agricultural land in their home territory, they erupted like a thunderstorm from the North. The resulting orgy of plundering and killing put the monasteries in Lindisfarne and Iona out of business. The Northmen terrorised England, dominating almost all of it at one time, and even provided a couple of England’s kings.

The Vikings did not confine themselves to raiding. They established trading posts around the coast which still exist today as Ireland’s major cities: Dublin, Wexford and Limerick are their direct descendents. In time the newcomers were absorbed into Irish life and culture and after a couple of centuries became as Irish as the Irish themselves.

From that time until 1169 the Irish continued with their usual way of life: the monks and students continued to study and to spread their learning abroad, and the various regional kings fought each other for the right to be Ard Ri, the High king. The story related thus far is the history the Irish look back on with pride; it is the history of a strong, proud and cultured people, a people who were admired throughout Europe.

One would think the papacy would have been grateful for Ireland’s heroic contribution to the resurgence and spread of Christianity. But alas, no! The Catholic Church had changed a great deal since the days of Saint Patrick. It had become worldlier and less spiritual as it sought to increase its wealth and political influence throughout Europe. And Rome was losing patience with Ireland and the Irish way of life.

There were two reasons for this. First, there was the question of the Brehon Laws, which were still widely observed in Ireland. Brehon Law was a fairly egalitarian system which had served Ireland well for centuries. But it permitted divorce, and it allowed a man to marry his brother’s widow, which the Church considered to be incest. Even more serious, the Irish were not keen on the idea of paying tithes to the Church. Rome was not prepared to tolerate this indefinitely.

The other reason for Rome’s discontent was the political set up in Ireland, with several regional kings constantly fighting each other for the position of High King. It is true that similar power struggles were always going on in England, Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, but there was one difference: in other countries whoever was king was the sole king in that realm, and he would dutifully toe the papal line. ‘One Church, one king’ was Rome’s policy.

In the mid-twelfth century Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Pope asking permission to invade Ireland in order to impose stricter control over “…a rude and ignorant people”. With these words the lying stereotype of Ireland as a land of ignoramuses was born. At the stroke of the pen, Ireland’s long standing reputation of the “land of saints and scholars” was erased from the historical record.

Later on, after the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland another “holy” man named Gerard of Wales, who was of Welsh-Norman ancestry, wrote slanderous accounts of the Irish as filthy ignorant savages. This anti-Irish propaganda was to be used for centuries to justify the cruelty and oppression inflicted upon the Irish people by the British ruling class. It finds an echo to this very day in the racist jokes about ‘thick paddies’, although anyone who has had any dealings with the Irish or who has ever spent time in Ireland, knows that the Irish are an intelligent and enterprising people.

The Normans

In 1155 Pope Adrian IV wrote to Henry II, granting him permission to invade and rule Ireland. Among the conditions for Papal recognition of his rule, Henry had to ensure that each household in Ireland donated a penny a year to the Church, and the Church must have jurisdiction over both Ireland and England. Henry did not like the idea of the Pope having any say in the running of England and did not take up the offer till 16 years later, when certain events made him change his mind.

Dermot Mac Murrough, king of Leinster, was exiled from Ireland in consequence of his feuding with another provincial king, Rory O’Connor. He asked Henry to help him regain his kingdom and Henry redirected him to the Earl of Pembroke, better known to history as Strongbow. An agreement was made whereby Strongbow would help him defeat his enemies in Ireland and in return would receive Dermot’s daughter’s hand in marriage and inherit Dermot’s kingdom when he died. Strongbow went over to Ireland with a well equipped army, defeated Dermot’s enemies, and duly married his daughter.

When Dermot died soon after, Strongbow wasted no time having himself crowned High King of Ireland. Henry II was not going to put up with that. In 1170, accompanied by a papal legate, he took his army over to Ireland and declared himself King with the full authority of the Pope behind him. The Irish clergy submitted to his rule immediately; so too did Strongow and the other Norman barons.

Trim Castle Image Andrew ParnellTrim Castle, constructed in 1175, was one of the physical manifestations of Norman rule in Ireland / Image: Andrew Parnell

By 1175 all the provincial kings of Ireland had submitted to Henry and had their lands restored except for the lands he had doled out to his Norman barons and the area around Dublin and the coastal region extending southwards to Dungarvin, which he reserved for himself. Rory O’Connor of Connaught was to be recognised as High King of the rest of Ireland and was given the task of collecting tithes and tributes from the reluctant Irish.

All this was agreed to in the Treaty of Windsor to which Henry put his name. But the treaty was soon broken by Henry, who continued to grant more land to his Norman barons, and by the barons themselves, who continued to steal more and more land by force of arms. A century later they controlled about 75% of Ireland’s territory. The conquest of Ireland was Britain’s first venture into imperialism, and it was carried out with the full blessing of the papacy. It was to sow the seeds of all Ireland’s sorrows for centuries, right up to the present day.

In the following century the Irish not only regained much of their territory, they also won the cultural contest with the Anglo-Normans. The Norman settlers from the first invasion adopted the Brehon Laws, and married into Irish families. They even spoke the Irish language. Laws imposed on them by England to stop this assimilation into Irish culture had little effect.

The Tudors

English monarchs were never happy with the state of affairs in Ireland and in 1494 Henry VII sent Edward Poynings as Lord Deputy to bring Ireland into ‘whole and perfect obedience’. Poynings introduced a law decreeing that Ireland’s parliament could only meet with royal permission and could only pass laws that the king of England approved of.

The breach between Henry VIII and Rome brought about new changes. In 1536 Henry forced the Irish Parliament to recognise him as “the only and supreme head of the Church of Ireland”. The Pope’s authority was to be renounced and the population was to pay a tax or tithe to the new Church (of England). He was declared King of Ireland in 1541 and demanded that the Gaelic nobles abandon not only their loyalty to Rome, but also their Gaelic language and customs.

Henry VIII Image public domain

Most of the population and the clergy only paid lip service to the new Church of Ireland, which was to be the Irish branch of the new (Anglican) Church of England, and carried on much as before. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that the real and brutal oppression of Ireland began. In 1570 Pope Pius V declared Elizabeth a heretic and forbade all Irish to obey her laws. This, and the encroaching upon their land by English settlers, led to the Munster rebellion.

This rebellion, aided by a small armed force supplied by the Pope, was put down with murderous cruelty. Not only the armed rebels, but every man, woman and child who got in the way of the English, were put to the sword. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, military governor of Munster, lined each side of the pathway leading to his camp with the severed heads of his victims in order to terrify the local population.

By 1583 the rebellion was over, its leaders slain, and the province laid waste. The suffering of the people was beyond belief:

“Out of every corner of the woods they came, creeping forth on their hands for their legs would not bear them. They looked like skeletons; they ate corpses. If they found a plot of shamrock they flocked there as a feast”.

To justify this slaughter the Elizabethans revived the propaganda used by the Catholic Church and the Normans to excuse Henry II’s invasion in 1171. They even went further in their insulting and demeaning diatribe which portrayed the Irish as sub-humans who did not merit humane treatment. This is the pattern that has been followed ever since by powerful countries when suppressing weaker countries. It was used by Europeans settlers to justify the slaughter of Native Americans and Africans; it was used by Hitler to justify the killing of millions of Russians to gain his Lebensraum.

In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre:

“How can an elite of usurpers, aware of their mediocrity, establish their privileges? By one means only: debasing the colonised to exalt themselves, denying the title of humanity to the natives, and defining them simply as absences of qualities – animals, not humans. This does not prove hard to do, for the system deprives them of everything.”

To Hell or Connaught

In 1641, while England’s royalists and parliamentarians were at war with each other, the Irish Catholics tried again to free themselves from English Protestant rule. The English could not give Ireland its full attention until their own civil war ended. Then, in 1649, Cromwell arrived with his army, having first defeated the Levellers in England, the left wing of the parliamentary army, who sympathised with the Irish. His brutal treatment of the Irish earned him their everlasting hatred.

At this time the English ruling class believed themselves to be God’s chosen people. Once again the Irish people were portrayed as a kind of sub-species of humanity, no better than animals, in order to justify the horrific cruelty inflicted upon them. Once again defenceless women and children were put to the sword in an orgy of torture and mass murder. The inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford were murdered. Cromwell boasted that of the 3,000 citizens of Drogheda not 30 of them escaped with their lives, declaring that “…I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon those barbarous wretches…”

By the time the God-fearing Cromwell had done with them the Irish had their population reduced by half, more than 600,000 of them dead and 100,000 sold into slavery. The English parliament passed a law whereby the people of Ulster, Leinster and Munster were to be driven west of the river Shannon into the area of Connaught and Clare; any Irish found East of the Shannon after May 1st 1654 were to be put to death. All of their land was to be given to English settlers. This was the infamous “to Hell or Connaught” policy, although this law had to be ignored later as the new English landowners needed the Irish to work the land for them.

The Catholic population lost huge tracts of the best land and were forbidden from living in towns or having any part in the political administration of their country. Their wealth and political power was lost to a new ruling class who were Protestant in faith and entirely pro-English. It is not difficult to understand why the Irish Catholics bitterly resented and hated their Protestant usurpers.

The Alliance between King Billy and the Pope

William of Orange allied himself to two popes: Pope Innocent XI (1676/89) and Pope Alexander VIII (1689/91). These two Popes were more than happy to support William III in his fight against the Catholic James II, and he was equally happy to support them in their war against France’s Louis XIV.

In fact part of the cost of William’s army and equipment was paid for by Pope Innocent XI under the treaty of Augsburg. And when William won his victory at the battle of the Boyne it was the Catholics all over Europe who celebrated: a Te Deum was sung in St Peter’s in Rome, in the Catholic capitals of Madrid and Brussels, and in the Catholic Cathedral of Vienna.

Indeed the whole of Catholic Europe, except France, rejoiced in William of Orange’s Boyne victory. For the struggle between King Billy and James II was not in reality a battle between Protestantism and Catholicism; only the mugs who slaughtered each other on the battlefield believed that. The Battle of the Boyne was part of the grand strategy of the papacy to defeat Louis XIV.

The fighting in Ireland was only another chapter in the struggle between Louis XIV and the Pope. The Catholic King James II took Louis’ side against the Pope and Louis provided him with 7,000 French soldiers to strengthen his army in Ireland. William of Orange took the Pope’s side and allied himself to the Catholic King of Spain, among others, in the fight to curtail France’s power. After the Boyne he continued to fight on the Pope’s side until the war against France ended with the Treaty of Ryswick. Yet to this very day the Orange Order promotes the myth that their great Protestant hero, King Billy, fought to “overthrow the Pope and popery at the Boyne”. Utter nonsense.

It gets worse: although the Presbyterians had been his most loyal supporters, William of Orange agreed to laws passed by England’s parliament under which the Presbyterians were persecuted. Under William’s rule both Catholics and Presbyterians were banned from practising their religions. The Anglican Church, to which Catholics and Presbyterians were forced to pay tithes, became the official and only Church permitted to worship legally in Ireland.

In 1704 the Test Act was introduced. Presbyterians were banned from holding office in Law, Army, Navy, Customs, Excise and Municipal Employment. This law was enforced all over Ireland. Presbyterian ministers were jailed for three months if caught preaching a sermon; they were not allowed to perform marriage sermons and were fined £100 (an enormous sum in those days) for celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

In 1713 another law was passed by which Presbyterian Schoolmasters could be imprisoned for teaching, and Presbyterians and Catholics were forbidden from marrying Anglicans or holding prayer meetings. These laws were approved by William of Orange. It is ironic to think that before the Battle of the Boyne James II had passed an act of parliament in Dublin granting freedom of religious worship to all, only to have the Protestant William of Orange replace it with legislation which oppressed both Catholics and Presbyterians alike.

Thus, the Presbyterians, who were the very backbone of William’s protestant support in Ireland, were stabbed in the back by their hero King Billy. Since his only real concern was to keep his backside firmly seated on the English throne, any loyalty due to his Presbyterian supporters was quickly forgotten. Religion, when all is said and done, is a very useful card in the political power game played by the ruling classes.

Absentee Landlords

The laws by which Ireland was now governed were formed to favour rich landlords and the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. In the first eighty years of the 18th century many of the richer land-owning Catholic families changed their religion to protect their land from confiscation, and many of the Catholic clergy did likewise in order to protect their positions.

6,000 rich landlords rented their estates to middlemen for a guaranteed annual sum. While these wealthy landowners moved to Dublin, London and Paris to live a life of luxury, their agents and middlemen squeezed the Irish tenant farmers for all they were worth. There was no security of tenure for the tenant farmer; if he had a lease then he would be forced each year to bid against others for the land he had rented, thus forcing the rents to increase far above what the land was worth.

If the tenant had no lease, his position was even worse. He and his family could be evicted without notice, on the whim of the landlord. Many tenant farmers were forced into the humiliating position of allowing their wives and daughters to be summoned to the landlord’s bed at his behest. Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican landlords all behaved in the same shameful manner. And Catholic and Presbyterian tenant farmers suffered the same oppression.

Common suffering at the hands of their feudal landlords made many Irish Catholics and Protestants realise they had more in common with each other than they had with their religious leaders or the Crown. Angered by the humiliation and poverty inflicted on them, they began to unite. They operated ‘hedge schools’, where children were educated in isolated farmlands, behind hedges where they were hidden from view.

Then the agrarian uprisings began. Beginning in Munster, resistance groups called Whiteboys were formed. These consisted of both Catholics and Protestants, who extracted vengeance on landlords who evicted poor tenants. Similar groups, called Oakboys, consisting almost entirely of Protestants, were formed in Derry, Fermanagh and Armagh. The government and the landlords did everything to defeat these groups, but despite shootings and hangings, transportation and imprisonment, the resistance continued.

All this seething anger and resentment was bound to culminate in rebellion, and it did so at the end of the century.

The Orange Order

There were two significant developments in the last decade of the 18th century. One was the creation of the Orange Order; the other was the formation of The Society of United Irishmen. In 1784 there arose in Ulster an extreme Anglican Protestant organisation whose purpose was to drive Catholic tenant farmers out of the most fertile farmland in Ulster. The organisation was called The Peep of Day Boys because of the practise of raiding Catholic farmhouses at daybreak. Catholic farmers were warned to abandon their homes under threat of death.

In response the Catholics formed a group called The Defenders to beat off their attackers. The struggle continued sporadically for a few years until the Anglicans, always better armed than their adversaries, succeeded in their aim. To this day all the best farmland in Eastern Ulster is Protestant-owned, while the poorer, low-yielding hill-top farms are worked by Catholics. It should be emphasised that The Peep of Day Boys was an Anglican Organisation and evolving from this The Orange Order was formed in 1795.

It is commonly believed that the Orange Order was a type of farmer’s union for the protection of the poorer tenant farmers. This is a misconception. For several years no Presbyterians were allowed to join the Orange Order. That only changed when the ruling classes saw in it the very weapon they needed to divide and rule the Irish working class.

The Orange Order was set up originally by Anglicans, the Church of the landlords and aristocrats which oppressed both Catholics and Presbyterians. It was founded on ignoble principles to further the interests of the rich landlords and aristocrats and to keep the poor in their place. It became the bastion of big businessmen and rich merchants who later encouraged Presbyterians to join, fooling them into thinking it was in their own interests to do so.

It was also used as a counter measure to the Society of United Irishmen which was endeavouring to unite both Catholics and Protestants in a campaign for an independent republic of Ireland. In later years, when workers tried to fight for their rights to a better standard of living the Orange Order was used as an army of bully-boys to smash the unions. In 1912, British labour leader Ramsay MacDonald wrote:

“In Belfast you get labour conditions the like of which you get in no other town, no other city of equal commercial prosperity from John O’Groats to Lands End or from the Atlantic to the North Sea. It is maintained by an exceedingly simple device… whenever there is an attempt to root out sweating in Belfast the Orange big drum is beaten…”.

The United Irishmen

It was Abraham Lincoln who said: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the peopleall of the time. There were many Irish Protestants who acknowledged that Irish Catholics had been unjustly persecuted for centuries and who believed that the best hope for all Irish people lay in forming an independent republic in which all were free to practise whatever religion they wished, or practise no religion at all.

Foremost among these was a young Irish Protestant lawyer from Dublin named Theobald Wolfe Tone. When Tone published An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland in 1791 he was invited to Belfast to discuss his views with the Liberals there. On October 14th they formed the Belfast Society of United Irishmen. The following month a Dublin branch was formed by James Napper Tandy.

These began as debating societies complaining about the Penal Code which oppressed both Catholics and Presbyterians, and the tariff restrictions which put Belfast businessmen at a disadvantage to their English competitors. Tone’s ultimate ambition was to establish a free and independent Ireland and he knew that he could not achieve this without the help of the working class, as we see from his famous utterance: “…we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.”

Inspired by Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man the movement became more revolutionary, working with similar movements in England and Scotland, and seeking help from France. The government got wind of what was going on and banned further meetings of the United Irishmen. Wolfe Tone was exiled to America from whence he sailed to France to continue his plans of rebellion, and sought aid from Napoleon.

An uprising was planned in 1798 but ended in disaster. It failed for several reasons. The Society had been infiltrated by informers who kept the Government fully aware of what was happening; owing to stormy weather the French help was too little and too late; many of the middle-class leaders of the rebellion were arrested on the eve of the rebellion; and some chickened out at the thought of the noose going around their necks.

As a result the rebellion was mostly leaderless and piecemeal in its actions and was doomed to defeat. It did have some success initially; in Wexford several Catholic priests fought bravely alongside the rebels with remarkable success, winning a few battles before they were surrounded and defeated at Vinegar Hill. Astonishingly, the Catholic bishops condemned the rebels for trying to overthrow the authorities. It was the view of the Catholic Church at that time that loyalty to Protestant England was the best strategy for increasing the influence of Catholicism in Ireland (England had already granted the Catholics their own seminary at Maynooth).

The ruling class in Ireland and England were horrified by the thought of Protestants and Catholics uniting together. The Anglican Archbishop of Armagh wrote: “The worst of this is that it stands to unite Protestant and Papist, and whenever that happens, goodbye to the English interest (rule) in Ireland forever.”

An example had to be made of The United Irishmen: Wolfe Tone was captured and sentenced to death, but he committed suicide rather than give his enemies the pleasure of hanging him; 30 Presbyterian clergymen were either hanged, imprisoned or exiled, homes were burned to the ground; men were hanged indiscriminately or flayed to death, and the sadistic practise of pitch-capping was used whereby a cloth bundle containing tar was fixed to the prisoner’s head and set alight so that the molten tar ran down his face and body. When no tar was available gunpowder was rubbed into the man’s hair, which was then set alight.

Most of this barbarity was perpetrated by the local militia and yeomanry, many of whom were Catholics, commanded by Protestant magistrates who were the toadies of the rich landowners. It is fair to say that the Scottish and English soldiers who were sent to restore order were appalled by what they saw. Glasgow-born General Sir John Moore, on witnessing this horrifying cruelty, commented “If I were an Irishman I would be a rebel too.”

In 1802 there was one last doomed attempt by the United Irishmen, led by 25-year-old Robert Emmet, to capture Dublin Castle and spark off a rebellion. The attempt failed and Emmet was sentenced to death. His speech at the trial has echoed down the generations as a rallying call to those of all nationalities who fight for their country’s freedom: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and only then, let my epitaph be written.”

Thus ended the United Irishmen’s courageous attempt, carried out against all odds, to rid themselves of English imperial rule and create a better and more egalitarian country for Irish Catholics and Protestants alike. It must go down as one of the noblest and most praiseworthy chapters in the history of the Irish people.

Orange Propaganda

The English ruling classes were in a state of panic. They had just been kicked out of their American colonies, and now there was a revolution in France. The French peasantry and citizenry had overthrown their aristocratic masters and taken over the running of their own country. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the French army commanded by some little upstart general called Napoleon was knocking seven bells out of every other army on the continent of Europe. There was a very real danger that the revolution would spread to England and that would be game over for the English aristocracy. This outcome would be all the more likely if the Irish Catholics and Protestants were to successfully unite and kick the English out of Ireland. An independent Republic of Ireland would soon lead to the English workers declaring a Republic of England. It was absolutely vital for them to stop Ireland from gaining its independence.

The Act of Union, 1801, had already removed the Irish parliament from Dublin to London. The next step was to prevent the Irish Catholics and Protestants from ever uniting forces again by building an unbreakable barrier of bigotry between them. This was done by a combination of bribery and propaganda. First, the Presbyterian clergymen had to be persuaded to stop agitating for an independent Ireland. No problem – give them money! Each Presbyterian minister was given an annual allowance of £75, a lot of money in those days, on condition that he became a loyal Unionist. Soon the Presbyterian clergy were the staunchest advocates of the Unionist cause.

Next, the Belfast businessmen, hell-bent on independence, had to be placated. This was done by removing trade restrictions, tariffs and custom duties which had made it extremely difficult for Irish business to compete with England. When the Belfast businessmen started to get rich they too began to see that it was in their own interest to defend the Union.

It now remained to win over the Presbyterian working class to the Unionist cause. This was achieved by relentless, unceasing and blatantly false propaganda. Although the Society of United Irishmen was a Protestant concept, and mainly Protestant led, it was now being branded as a Catholic plot to gain dominance in Ireland. From every pulpit the Presbyterian clergy denounced the United Irishmen and all they stood for. They warned Protestants of the horrors that awaited them if they ever came under Catholic rule. Powerful preachers such as the reverends Thomas Drew and Hugh (roaring) Hannah terrified them with tales of the torture and agonising death by fire that was in store for them if the Catholics took over.

The reason why preachers like Drew and Hannah were so convincing is because they genuinely believed that what they were saying was true. They believed it because the dreaded Spanish Inquisition, although very much a spent force, was still in existence (it officially came to an end in 1834). In all the long history of man’s inhumanity to man there is no more horrifying chapter than that of The Holy Office of the Inquisition, to give it its official title; an almost five-hundred-year-long reign of terror from which no man or woman, not even the most rich and powerful, was safe. Torture, garrotting, burning at the stake or being buried alive was the inevitable fate of anyone who fell foul of the Inquisition. Not even corpses were immune. Dead bodies were often dug up, tried and burned.

It was only too easy to implant mental images of these horrors in the minds of the Protestant community in Ireland, so it is no surprise that when the Anglican Orange Order opened its membership to all non-Catholics the Presbyterian businessmen and workers joined up en masse. Thus was history turned upside-down. William of Orange, who had so treacherously betrayed the Presbyterians of Ulster and driven many thousands of them to emigrate to America because of persecution under his government, was now remembered as their hero and saviour from Catholic tyranny. The Ulster Presbyterians, once the most determined group fighting for separation from England, were now the most strident advocates of the Union. You’ve got to hand it to the British ruling classes; they are past masters when it comes to manipulating the hearts and minds of the people.

Daniel O’Connell

Meanwhile the nineteenth century was proving to be another age of poverty, oppression and starvation for the mostly Catholic tenant farmers. They were still at the mercy of the landlords who charged increasingly exorbitant rents and would not hesitate to evict any family who could not pay. Keeping his tenancy was a matter of life or death to the farmer and his family.

As if that wasn’t enough the Anglican clergy, escorted by soldiers, would seize one tenth (the tithe) of the farmers produce although the farmer was already struggling to feed his hungry family. There were no laws or regulations to protect the tenant farmers from this exploitation, because the laws were made by the rich for the rich.

Daniel OConnell Image public domainDaniel O'Connell / Image: public domain

It is no surprise therefore that there was a resurgence of Whiteboyism and peasant reaction to the persecution that they suffered. The Whiteboys and other secret societies regrouped and took whatever revenge they could on the landlords and their agents who evicted the exploited farmers. This gave rise to the ‘Tithe Wars’ of the eighteen-thirties during which desperate peasant farmers fought and died trying to oppose the evictions and the legalised robbery that was making their lives unbearable. It is to the great shame of the Catholic Church that it did not support its followers at this time. Instead of condemning the greedy landowners who had caused and perpetuated this situation, they condemned from the altar the actions of the peasants who were fighting for their very survival. The rich landlords, both Catholic and Protestant, had a constant ally in the Catholic Church.

One of these landowners was Daniel O’Connell. He is famous in Irish history for having won Irish emancipation, although it would have come anyway as many of the influential figures in British politics at that time were in favour of it. For this O’Connell is revered in Ireland as the “Great Liberator” although in truth he was an enemy of the Irish working class.

The vote at that time was of no benefit to the workers or tenant farmers. If they did not vote for whoever the landlord nominated, they were evicted. It was, however, of great benefit to O’Connell’s own social strata, the rich and the upper middle class in Ireland, who saw it as an opportunity to gain more political power. O’Connell courted the support of the unions while he was campaigning for Catholic emancipation, but once that was achieved he showed his true colours. He constantly attacked the trade unions. He opposed the minimum wage and spoke against an act to limit the excessive and exhausting hours worked by children in British industry (in 1805 so many children died while working like slaves in the cotton mills that they had to be buried in many different parishes so that it wouldn’t look so bad).

His constant practise of associating only Catholics with the struggle for Ireland’s independence, thus dismissing the heroic efforts of Tone and the many other Presbyterians who gave their lives for that cause, alienated Protestants and made them more sympathetic to Orangism. John Mitchell, a leading member of the Young Irelanders who fought for Ireland’s cause during the terrible famine of 1845-49, said of O’Connell: “Apart from the British Government he is the worst enemy Ireland ever had.” He does not merit the high esteem in which the Irish people hold him.

The Famine and the Fenians

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”. (Robert Burns)

As if the long suffering Irish people hadn’t enough to contend with, the potato blight struck in 1845 and lasted till 1849. Nothing showed up the injustice, inhumanity and downright evil of the landlord system, under which the oppressed Irish peasantry struggled to exist, like the ensuing famine. By the time the “Great Hunger” had played itself out 1,500,000 people had died of disease and starvation and at least 1,000,000 had been forced to leave their homeland forever. And it was all unnecessary.

It was not the potato blight that caused the terrible suffering of the Irish rural community at that time; it was the landlords’ insatiable greed and total disregard for human suffering. The poor tenant farmers had to give the corn they had grown to the landlord as payment for rent; those who didn’t were evicted. Families were left to die on the fields and by the roadsides while abundant food in the way of corn, barley and livestock was being exported for the landlord’s profit.

An organisation called the Young Irelanders tried unsuccessfully to do something about Ireland’s suffering during the famine, and from that organisation another was born. The Fenian movement, known officially as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was founded in Dublin on 17th March, 1858 by a former Young Irelander named James Stephens, a man with great organising ability. The Fenians were a socialist leaning movement and one of the leaders, Thomas Clarke Luby, declared that he stood for “…an Irish Republic in which the people of Ireland would own the wealth of Ireland and administer it for the benefit of the entire community and not one class.”

Such statements incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church, which once again took the side of the rich against the poor. The Church accused the Fenians of being evil and anti-Christian. Sir Shane Leslie, in his work The Irish Tangle in 1945, states: “No one cursed the Fenians more than Cardinal Cullen.” The London Times gleefully reported: “It is gratifying to record the consistent firmness with which our Roman Catholic clergymen at least have discounted all sympathy with Fenianism.”

The Fenians’ reply to the Catholic Church was straight to the point: “Our only hope is revolution, but most bishops and many of the clergy are opposed to revolution… when priests turn the altar into a platform, when it is pronounced a mortal sin to read the ‘Irish People’, a mortal sin to even wish that Ireland should be free, when priests call upon the people to turn informers… when, in a word, bishops and priests are doing the work of the enemy, we believe it is our duty to tell the people that bishops and priests may be bad politicians and worse Irishmen.”

Despite the fact that thousands of Irish families were being evicted from their homes and a constant stream of proposed laws to help the poor Irish tenants was rejected by the House of Commons, the Catholic Church still sided with the rich, and opposed the Fenian movement.

As with the United Irishmen, the government infiltrated the Fenian movement with spies. On September 15, 1865, the police raided Fenian headquarters and almost the entire leadership was arrested and sentenced to twenty years penal servitude. This was a devastating blow to the movement, although its leader, James Stephens, was rescued by an Irish-American officer named Col. Thomas Kelly and safely made his way to America via France.

The Land League

Although sentenced to 20 years in 1865, the Fenian leaders had their sentences reduced thanks to agitation from the English working-class movements, the Chartists, and the International Working Men’s Association headed by Karl Marx who raised international support for the imprisoned Fenians. Former Fenian organiser Michael Davitt was released in December, 1877, on condition that he lived abroad for two years. He returned to Ireland in 1879 to fight the cause of the impoverished Irish farmers once again.

Improved methods of agricultural production in America had a devastating effect on Ireland’s agricultural economy. In 1876 Ireland’s potato crop had been worth £12,500,000; two years later it was worth only a quarter of that. Yet the landowners still expected the tenant farmers to pay the same exorbitant rents, and those who were unable to do so were evicted. Between 1878 and 1886 130,000 families were evicted.

Not surprisingly there was a bitter backlash from the victims of these evictions. In 1878 one of Ireland’s biggest landowners, the Earl of Leitrim, was assassinated close to the mud hut from which he had evicted a poor widow.

To make matters worse bad weather resulted in poor harvests, threatening to create another famine situation.

In 1879 in Quinltagh, Co. Mayo, the local parish priest, Geoffrey Burke, inherited his brother’s property and immediately issued eviction notices to the tenants, all of whom were in arrears owing to the prevailing economic circumstances. Michael Davitt, along with another prominent Fenian, Thomas Brennan, and J. O’Connor Power the local Home Rule M.P., organised a meeting “to protest against the action of Canon Burke, to demand a reduction in rents, and to denounce the whole landlord system.”

7,000 attended the meeting on April 20th and from this the Irish Land League was born. Davitt travelled all over Ireland addressing meetings and building up league membership. He also invited Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Home Rule Party, to become president of the League. At a meeting at Westport, Co. Meath, Parnell spoke: “A fair rent is a rent a tenant can reasonably afford to pay according to the times… what must you do to induce the landlords to see the position? You must show them that you intend to hold a firm grip of your homesteads… you must not allow yourselves to be dispossessed as your fathers were dispossessed… help yourselves and the public opinion of the world will stand by and support you in your struggle to defend your homesteads.”

Dr. John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, published a letter condemning the meeting and, as usual, the main body of the Catholic Church, ever paranoid about anything remotely socialist, declared their support for the landlords. But some Catholic clergymen had the courage to defy their Church leaders. Two prelates, William Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, and Dr. Nulty, Bishop of Meath, supported the League, and Catholic priest Father John O’Malley led the local Land League of Ballinrobe in a campaign against the land agent of the Earl of Erne, Captain Charles S. Boycott. In so doing he added a new word – boycott – to the English language.

On September 22nd, 1880, Captain Boycott (himself a small landowner) sent his bailiff to deliver eviction notices to some tenants. He was driven off, along with his police escort, by the angry tenants. Then the Ballinrobe Land League adopted a strategy recommended three days earlier by Parnell, but first suggested by Davitt eight months earlier: it was a strategy of ostracism.

On September 24th Boycott was astonished to see his servants and all the farm workers march off the estate. Furthermore, no shopkeeper or tradesman would do business with him. Boycott was desperate; he needed help to save his crop and when his plight was reported in the London Times other landlords and the ruling establishment were only too happy to oblige.

Six Ulster landlords, accompanied by fifty Orangemen and escorted by 600 infantrymen and 200 hussars, arrived on November 11th to come to Boycott’s aid. All were shunned (boycotted) by the local population. Boycott’s crop was saved, but at enormous expense: the crop was worth £300 but it cost £3,000 to save. Demoralised, the chastened Captain Boycott left for London a few days later. It was a resounding victory for The Land League.

The government was getting very worried, for not all Orangemen were opposed to the Land League. The fearless and indefatigable Michael Davitt had approached many Orange lodges and explained his case. As a result he was gaining a lot of sympathisers in the Orange movement; also, the staunchly Catholic Co. Mayo, angered by the Catholic Church’s support of the landlords, voted for an Ulster Presbyterian minister as their MP.

The Government was now on ‘red alert’. The Catholics and Protestants could not be allowed to unite, that would be a disaster for the landlord system and the ruling class in general. On October 12th Parnell and other leaders of the Land League were arrested. Eight days later the League was declared illegal.

But Parnell could not go the last mile. Instead of sticking to the principles of the Land League he made a deal with the Government to release the imprisoned leaders of the League in return for his co-operation. Also, the government would introduce a new Land Act setting up tribunals to establish fair rents for tenant farmers, fixed for a term of 15 years during which the tenant could not be evicted.

In addition 130,000 rent arrear cases were dropped, being paid at government expense. This was similar to the conditions enjoyed by tenant farmers in Ulster and took some heat out of the situation, thus avoiding the danger of the Ulster Protestants and the Catholics from uniting against the government. It was tragic that Parnell, a Protestant landowner who had financially ruined himself in his fight for the mainly Catholic tenant farmers, should fall at the last hurdle. He feared that to maintain his stance would plunge the country into revolution and civil war and he simply didn’t have the stomach for it.

The Land League rejected the Land Act, believing that the land being worked by the tenant farmers should belong to them and they should no longer be obliged to pay rent for the upkeep of absentee landlords. But the Land Act was passed and large numbers of tenant farmers accepted it. But agrarian crime and unrest continued; the rural population were still suffering from poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, the Ladies Land League tried to help the poor by charitable means, only to be rebuked for doing so by the Archbishop of Dublin.

In 1882 the now weakened Land League reformed itself as The Irish National League with the aim of attaining national self government.

Organised Labour

Parnell’s Home Rule Party was divided by the exposure of his affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. She left her husband before she ever took up with Parnell and was his mistress for ten years before her husband sued for divorce, citing Parnell as co-respondent. His enemies had a field day when the scandal became public knowledge and the Catholic Bishops in particular condemned him. Parnell died eleven months later, in October, 1891, aged 45. His Home Rule Party never fully recovered.

John Redmond became leader of the Irish Party in 1900, but the Party was dominated by Joseph Devlin and his group, the Board of Erin. The Board of Erin group, an off shoot of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, insisted that Irish nationalism was a strictly Catholic issue, thereby alienating Protestants and destroying hope of Catholic and Protestant unity in the movement. This attitude was deplored by patriots like Padraic Pearse and James Connolly, who branded the Board “The foulest brood that ever came into Ireland.”

In 1905 Sinn Fein was established, with the idea that England and Ireland would have separate parliaments and the King of Great Britain would also be King of Ireland. The founder, Arthur Griffith, hoped this would attract the support of the Ulster Unionists. Meanwhile, the Fenian movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was experiencing a revival. Many young and energetic men were joining, giving new blood and new vitality to the cause of Irish independence. It was at this time that two heroic men, neither of them Irish-born, stepped onto the stage of Ireland’s history: James Connolly and James Larkin.

James Connolly Image public domainJames Connolly / Image: public domain

Edinburgh-born Connolly was a Marxist, probably influenced by his uncle, John Leslie, who was a Marxist and a Fenian. He was persuaded by Leslie to try to establish a Socialist party in Ireland and at the age of twenty-six he founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Dublin. The party was far in advance of any previous party in Ireland in its political thinking, advocating such social improvements as free education, pensions for the aged and the disabled, and nationalisation of banks and transport systems. In 1901 he published a pamphlet rebuking the religious hierarchy for accusing Socialism of being anti-religious:

“Socialism, as a party, bases itself upon the knowledge of facts of economic truths, and leaves the building up of religious ideals or faiths to the outside public, or to its individual numbers if they so will. It is neither Freethinker, nor Christian, Turk nor Jew, Buddhist nor Idolator, Mahommedan nor Parsee – it is only HUMAN.”

In 1903, with his party failing to gain popular support and disrupted by internal quarrels, Connolly emigrated to America.

James Larkin arrived in Belfast in January, 1907. Liverpool-born Larkin was, like Connolly, the son of Irish emigrants, a Marxist, and deeply sympathetic to the cause of Irelands independence. Also like Connolly, he recognised the need to unite Catholic and Protestants in the struggle to achieve decent living conditions and free themselves from the virtual tyranny of the employers. He came to organise dockers for the National Dock Labourers Union. He soon had his hands full. The Belfast Steamship company provoked a strike by employing non-trade union workers, causing the dockers to go on strike.

In an attempt to smash the union the company now brought in ‘blackleg’ workers from England. Larkin was willing to negotiate an end to the dispute and even the Lord Mayor of Belfast offered to arbitrate, but the Chairman of the Steamship Company was adamant – it was a lock-out! On the third week of the strike Larkin was arrested for felling a blackleg who attacked him with a knife. He was later found ‘not guilty’, but his arrest increased the anger among the strikers and other workers struck in sympathy with the dockers. Then the employers confidently played their usual game: they claimed that Larkin was a Catholic and a troublemaker; all good and loyal Orangemen should shun him.

But this time it didn’t work. Larkin offered to resign from the strike committee, but the Protestants would have none of it – he was their leader and they were standing by him. The charismatic firebrand had united Catholics and Protestants in their common struggle and, to the employers’ astonishment, even won the support of the Orange Order. At a huge rally on August 11th both Larkin and Lindsay Crawford, leader of the Independent Orange Order, spoke in support of the strike. Meanwhile the army had been drafted into Belfast and stationed in Catholic areas like Falls Road, nowhere near the striking pickets’ positions. This was a deliberate provocation which led to rioting on August 12th in which two people were killed and several injured.

This could have led to sectarian riots which would have destroyed the united action of the workers, but Larkin immediately issued a handbill: “Not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers, stand together and don’t be misled by the employers’ game of dividing Catholic and Protestant.”

George Askwith was sent by the Board of Trade to arbitrate and on August 15th, after more than three months on strike, the hungry dockers agreed to return to work. They had to give an undertaking to behave themselves in future. It was a long, hard fight, but as historian Peter Berresford Ellis put it: “The Belfast strike was of tremendous significance. The workers had organised and, despite the establishment’s efforts to play off Protestant against Catholic, they had held together.”

In 1908, frustrated by the inability of his Union’s London executives to understand or sympathise with the situation in Ireland, Larkin formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in Dublin, ending the “policy of grafting ourselves on the English Trade Union Movement.”

The Return of Connolly

James Connolly returned to Ireland in 1910 and had two of his works published: Labour in Irish History and Labour, Nationality and Religion. The latter was an incisive, withering rejoinder to a vicious attack on socialism made by Father Robert Kane in Gardiner Street Church, Dublin.

Many Catholic theoreticians were beginning to think that the official Church opposition to Socialism was a big mistake, resulting in growing controversy between them and the more conservative Catholic hierarchy. The way Connolly made his case during this controversy won him the respect of Catholics in London and he was invited to debate the issue at the Irish Club in Charing Cross Road. His opponent in the debate was the redoubtable Hilaire Belloc, one of Britain’s leading Catholic intellectuals. An astonished audience watched Connolly win the debate with effortless ease.

In 1911 he moved to Belfast and was appointed secretary of Larkin’s ITGWU. When a seamen’s strike broke out in July of that year Connolly succeeded in uniting Catholic and Protestant workers and persuaded 600 dockers to come out in sympathy. As a result the Union won the dispute.

Such was the impact of the trade union movement’s success, thanks to Connolly’s and Larkin’s efforts to unite both Catholic and Protestant workers in their common struggle, that the employers decided to smash the unions once and for all. In 1911 the Dublin Employers’ Federation adopted a policy of ‘locking out’ or dismissing any workers who refused to leave their union. By September 25,000 workers were locked out or sacked. The employers, with the tacit support of the Liberal government, used every foul means at their disposal to break the workers, including legal restrictions, arrests and vicious police brutality.

The blatant collusion of the police and the employers in attempting to crush the workers received widespread condemnation throughout Europe. After almost six months the struggle ended with neither side able to claim victory. But the police brutality gave rise to a greater feeling of class-consciousness in the Dublin working-class. It also gave rise to the Citizen Army. In 1914 James Larkin left for America and James Connolly took command in his absence.

The Easter rebellion

On Easter Monday, 1916, James Connolly and his Citizen Army, with a contingent of another armed group, the Irish Volunteers, occupied the post office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street and Padraic Pearse read out the proclamation of an Irish Republic. The rebels were heroic to the nth degree. They were idealists whose dream was to free their country from 750 years of pitiless oppression. They fought courageously, but they fought against overwhelming odds, and in the end the rebellion was doomed to failure.

Retribution was swift, vindictive and brutal. General Sir John Maxwell, governing Ireland under martial law, gave orders that a mass grave should be dug, big enough to contain 100 corpses. Then the executions began. The sentences were confirmed by the War Cabinet, which included the bigoted Ulster Unionist leader Edward Carson, and the prosecution was in the charge of his friend and ally the Attorney General F.E. Smith.

The leaders of the uprising were quickly dealt with. Connolly, wounded twice in the fighting, had his foot amputated and had to be strapped to a chair before being shot. His old enemy, W.H. Murphy, a leading member of the Employers’ Federation and the richest man in Dublin, could not conceal his glee. In his journal, the Irish Catholic, he spitefully declared that Connolly deserved his fate and that Padraic Pearse was mentally unbalanced.

But Murphy’s vile propaganda was ineffective and many Catholic priests expressed outrage at the executions. When Sir John Maxwell asked the Bishop of Limerick, Dr. O’Dwyer, to silence the priests in his parish he was astonished by the reaction of the usually pro-British Bishop: “You took care that no plea for mercy should interpose on behalf of those… who surrendered to you… I regard your action with horror… it has outraged the conscience of the country”.

The Apartheid State

The bloody suppression of the rebellion did not have the desired effect of subduing the Irish Republican movement. On the contrary, it angered the entire population outside of Ulster and set the scene for further rebellion. The ensuing ‘troubles’ are well known. The continuing struggle for independence manifested itself in the conflict between the IRA and the British Army and the Black and Tans.

Civil war ensued, and the murderous atrocities committed by the British Army, were followed by equally brutal retaliation from the IRA, and finally the establishment of an independent Republic of Ireland and the severing of Northern Ireland. On Dec. 6th 1921 Michael Collins and his delegation signed a treaty with the following conditions:

  1. Twenty six independent counties will be known as The Irish Free State.
  2. Six Ulster counties will continue to be part of the UK.
  3. A Boundary Commission will determine the dividing line between North and South and a Council of Ireland will discuss the eventual reunification of Ireland.

The Irish Free State would become an independent dominion like Canada, raising its own taxes and having an army and navy. The UK would maintain four bases in Ireland. The oath of Allegiance would be watered down to an oath of allegiance to Ireland and a declaration of fidelity to the King.

According to Collins, this was the best deal that could be negotiated but it led to civil war between the Free Staters and the Irish Republicans, who considered the treaty a betrayal, while those who accepted the treaty regarded it as a stepping stone to eventual total independence for all of Ireland.

When the Treaty terms were made public, the Orange reaction was immediate, vindictive and ruthless. The Northern Irish Parliament passed a law imposing severe penalties on anyone who was found to be a member of any ‘seditious’ association, or anyone possessing firearms without a permit. Under no circumstances was any Catholic allowed such a permit. Even applying for one could get a Catholic arrested. On the other hand any member of an Orange Lodge could have one for the asking.

As a result of previous pogroms of the Catholics in Belfast, the Catholic quarter was densely overpopulated. Families were forced to live in shacks and sheds on waste ground, in halls and church crypts. ‘Special’ police searched the Catholic quarter for concealed weapons, and once they were satisfied that there were no weapons to be found they spread the word. Orange mobs marched in, hell-bent on destroying the quarter. IRA men from other areas came to the defence of the Catholics, whereupon the military were called in to quell the riots.

Every time the military left, the riots flared up again. Between June 1920 and June 1922, 9,000 Catholics had been forced out of their jobs and 23,000 made homeless; 428 had been killed and 1,766 wounded. Reprisals were inevitable: Sir Henry Wilson, Chief Military Adviser to the Northern Irish Government, was assassinated in London by two Irish ex-servicemen. The IRA planned a reprisal raid into the Six Counties, but this was ruthlessly crushed by the Free State Army, led by Michael Collins, at the behest of the English Government.

Northern Ireland was now a religious Apartheid State. The Six Counties Government allowed one third of its population to be victimised and persecuted relentlessly by the Orange establishment. The vast majority of skilled jobs in engineering and shipbuilding were denied to Catholics. The same applied in the civil service and in any employment that offered the chance of a career or a decent future. In their blind prejudicial arrogance the rulers of the six counties were storing up trouble for themselves.

Meanwhile the capitalist captains of Industry were dominating the Orange Order and keeping the working class divided against itself. The working-class members of the Orange order were naively ignorant of the fact that they were being manipulated by their capitalist Grand Masters to keep their fellow workers, and themselves, in poverty.

It is true that the wiser members of Belfast Government would come to realise that the cost of maintaining this Orange tyranny was exorbitant. The cost for policing and other security measures, the difficulty of persuading foreign businesses to operate in Ulster, and the image of the Six Counties in the eyes of the world - all these things had a devastatingly detrimental effect on Northern Ireland’s economy. But by the time they realised this and tried to take measures to limit the influence of the Orange Order it was too late. The Orange Order was now a power on its own. The Northern Irish Government had a tiger by the tail.

The Republic of Ireland

The compromise of the “Irish Free State” was too unsatisfactory to Irish Republicans and to the Irish in general, to survive. They wanted total independence. After years of sporadic violence and unrest, with the Treaty receiving some amendments, the 1921 Treaty was arbitrarily scrapped in 1948. John A. Costello, Taoiseach of The Inter Party Government, declared that, as of Easter Monday, 1949, The Irish Free State was to be known as The Republic of Ireland (Eire).

The Republic was supposed to be totally independent of England. The British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, stoically accepted the situation. He even went further by deciding that the Republic would not be treated as a foreign country, but as a neighbour with a special relationship. This was supposed to make things easier for Ireland’s economy.

Derry Mural Image diego cueCivil Rights mural in Derry / Image: diego cue

Not surprisingly, the Northern bigots were enraged and accused Attlee of surrendering to Eire. They were soon placated when he assured them that Ulster would not be reunified with the rest of Ireland without the consent of the parliament of Northern Ireland.

Two years later the Catholic hierarchy interfered in the affairs of Inter Party Government in a way that played right into the hands of the Orange Order. The Minister of Health, Dr. Noel Brown, a very humane and very capable man who had all but eradicated the scourge of TB from Ireland, tried to introduce the Mother and Child Scheme, giving free healthcare to all mothers, and children up to the age of 16.

The Irish Medical Association opposed the scheme because it would hit their pockets. On the other hand the Catholic hierarchy, led by the Archbishop of Dublin, opposed the scheme on the grounds that it was socialistic and anti-Christian. Perhaps they should have gone back to their bibles and read the parable about the Good Samaritan.

The Irish Government, more concerned about the sensitivities of the unelected Catholic hierarchy than they were about the welfare of those they governed, rejected the scheme. In so doing they strengthened the Orange argument that “Home rule is Rome rule”.

The newly declared Republic of Ireland was now officially master of its own fate. But many people in Ireland still resented the partitioning of Ireland, and the Ulster Protestants’ extreme victimisation of Irish Catholics within the Six Counties did nothing to heal the wounds inflicted upon the Irish by centuries of British Imperialism.

The blatant and sustained victimisation by the Orange Apartheid regime in Northern Ireland had many of the elements of a police state. So unjust was the Public Order Bill and the Special Powers Act, which empowered the police to search, arrest and detain without warrant or trial, that it disqualified the UK from being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This situation was as much the fault of Westminster as it was of Stormont. Westminster had allowed Ulster to remain “British”, albeit with its own parliament, therefore Westminster was ultimately responsible for turning a blind eye to the atrocious treatment handed out to the Catholics in the Six Counties.

Civil Rights Movements

In 1967 the non-sectarian Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland was founded in Co. Tyrone by liberal Protestants and Catholics working with trade unionists and housing groups. It was the forerunner of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Group (CRA). In Derry the James Connolly Society, the Derry Labour Party, the Young Socialists and other groups, all co-operating with the CRA, gave notice, in compliance with Six Counties Law, of a march through Derry on October 5th. But the staunchly Orange Minister for Home Affairs, William Craig, fearing that this was another attempt to unite Catholic and Protestant workers, declared a ban on all marches in Derry.

Undeterred, the CRA decided the march would go ahead. Three English MP’s attended as observers and the leaders of the march included Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Ivan Cooper, a Protestant member of the Derry Labour Party. When the 2,000 marchers reached the entrance to Derry at Craigavon Bridge they were confronted by police armed with revolvers and batons, accompanied by two special squads of riot police.

The police charged into the marchers with batons and riot shields, clubbing everyone in sight, and when the marchers turned to flee they found their way barred by even more police squads who had moved in behind them to prevent their escape. Beaten with batons, drenched by water cannon, the bloodied, battered, soaking-wet marchers were cleared off the streets.

Despite this setback the CRA was determined to build an Ulster-wide non-sectarian civil rights movement. The reforms sought by the CRA included the following:

  1. A fairer voting system, with electoral boundary changes, to prevent Protestants having disproportionate influence in councils and government.
  2. Legislation to end discrimination in employment.
  3. A fair system of housing allocation.
  4. The repeal of the Special Powers Act, withdrawal of the Public Order Bill and the disbandment of the B Special Police Force.

The B Specials, about 8,000 strong, was a half trained group of part-time volunteers recruited by the Orange Order, armed with hand guns and sub-machine guns, which they kept at home. These were undisciplined Orange thugs with a license to kill. The British government in Westminster was well aware of the situation, but to its shame, allowed it to go on.

The growing Civil Rights movement gained popularity and on 9th October 1968, students from Queens University, Belfast, demonstrated in support of the CRA. Police had to keep the students and an extreme Protestant group from clashing. Following the demonstration the students, along with lecturers and sympathisers, held a meeting from which the People’s Democracy was formed. Its leaders included the fiery Bernadette Devlin.

The mood of revolt was spreading. Businessman John Hume formed the Derry Citizen’s Action Committee which held a sit-down demonstration on October 19th followed by a march on November 2nd. Seething at this growing Catholic and Protestant unity the Minister for Home Affairs again slapped a ban on the march and moved riot police into Derry. But 15,000 marchers turned up, outnumbering the astonished police and, thanks to Hume’s diplomatic efforts, the march went on unhindered.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Unionist leaders announced some reforms. Housing allocation would be taken out of the control of local councillors and replaced with a fairer system, and an ombudsman would deal with complaints against government and local councils. The Derry Corporation would be suspended and replaced by a Development Commission with more equal representation. The company vote, whereby businessmen were entitled to a special vote at local elections, would be abolished, and the Special Powers Act would later be reviewed.

The Unionist Government hoped these concessions would put an end to Civil Rights activity. But the Unionists were slow to put their promises into action and meanwhile the left-wing People’s Democracy was gaining support throughout the six counties, despite attempts by Protestant extremists to break up their meetings by force.

Enter Ian Paisley

Described by historian Peter Beresford Ellis as a nightmarish cross between Elmer Gantry and Benito Mussolini, his name is synonymous with religious bigotry and intolerance. The so-called Reverend Ian Richard Kyle Paisley got his honorary doctorate from the Bob Jones University of California, a right-wing racist institution. He persuaded his father, a Baptist Minister, to ordain him. Then, in 1951, he started his own Free Presbyterian Church and made himself Moderator. The ultimate bigot, his poisonous anti-Catholic rhetoric beggars belief:

“Through Popery the Devil has shut up the way to our inheritance. Priestcraft, superstition and papalism with all their attendant vices of murder, theft, immorality, lust and incest, blocked the way to the land of gospel liberty”. (Quoted from his own paper, the Protestant Telegraph, 1967.)

To counteract the People’s Democracy and the CRA, Paisley formed the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee and campaigned for the removal of Unionist leader Terence O’Neil, whom he considered too conciliatory towards the Catholics. Paisley and his followers entered Armagh armed with clubs and weapons, intent on stopping a CRA march, but they were stopped by police who confiscated their revolvers. Paisley was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and the march went on without any major incident.

But the Civil Rights marchers in January 1969 were not so fortunate. The Government was aware that elements in the Civil Rights movement, especially the People’s Democracy, were aspiring to build a socialist society, and that was no more acceptable to the right-wing Ulster Unionists than it was to the Catholic hierarchy in the Irish Republic. Heading towards Derry, they were attacked as they arrived at the Burntollet Bridge; many of their attackers were members of the B Specials.

The police, who knew the ambush would take place, stood by and watched men, women and young girls and boys being kicked unconscious. When survivors of the attack got into Derry and attempted to reach City Hall they were again attacked by Protestant gangs. Derry Catholics coming to the rescue of the marchers were attacked by the police, who showed their true loyalties by forcing the Catholics to retreat and barricade themselves in the Bogside area.

Northern Ireland was becoming a cauldron of violence, murder and mayhem. Despite everything some of the marchers reached their destination, where they received a rousing welcome from a huge, cheering crowd in Guildhall Square. The police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to give them their official title, were enraged by the fact that some of the marchers had succeeded. That night, drunk and violent, they went berserk. Rampaging through the Catholic Bogside area, they smashed windows, kicked in doors, destroyed property and beat anyone who got in their way in a night of terror that rivalled the brutality of the Nazi Brown-shirts.

More Civil Rights marches were held. More attacks and violence, and even bombings took place all over the Six Counties. These were blamed on the IRA but later found to be the work of Loyalist paramilitaries. The ranting and political agitation of Paisley added insane background music to Ulster’s sickening orchestrated violence. It was apparent that the armed Protestant extremists, aided by the RUC and the B Specials, were intent on mass murder, amounting to the genocidal removal of every last Catholic from the Province of Ulster.

The British Army

“…there was no shadow of doubt that without the army, the Protestants would have overwhelmed the Catholic areas… and the police would have done little to stop them”. (Max Hastings).

The British army was sent to the North. The troops moved in and placed themselves between the Catholic and Protestant areas in Derry, Belfast and other parts of the Six Counties. There is no doubt that the army’s arrival prevented the immediate bloody massacre of hundreds or even thousands of Northern Ireland’s Catholics and it was welcomed by Catholics at first. But what must never be forgotten is that the British army was sent to the North, not to defend the Catholic population but to uphold the interests of British imperialism, as subsequent events demonstrated. It is sufficient to recall the behaviour of the SAS, the murdering of protestors by the Paras on January 30th, 1972, (Bloody Sunday), internment, the shoot to kill policy and the death of the hunger strikers to underline this point.

These are only the more infamous incidents in the most terrible chapter in Ireland’s recent history. Today, after thirty years of pointless violence has claimed over three thousand lives, both sides are exhausted by this terrible struggle. It is not in the interests of the working class to return to that bloody morass. But the question that must be addressed is: how is it possible to exorcise the demons of religious sectarianism and achieve peaceful co-existence and social progress?

The answer to this burning question can never be provided by the capitalists and their politicians. Nor can it be provided by the Nationalists of either side. It was given long ago by Connolly and Larkin. Only class politics can cut across the sectarian madness and unite the working class on the basis of common struggle.

We fervently hope that innocent ordinary working-class people will never again have to endure the suffering and grief that was inflicted upon them for so long. But there is no room for complacency. It cannot be denied that there still exist some very bigoted and backward looking elements on both sides of the religious divide in the Six Counties.

Above all, it will never be possible to eradicate friction and rivalry between Catholics and Protestants as long as a chronic shortage of jobs and homes gives rise to competition between working people for the most basic means of existence. This is the poisonous soil upon which arises the baneful fruit of racism and sectarian strife.

The religious question in Scotland

Religious bigotry is not unfortunately confined to Northern Ireland. It also exists in Scotland. It is most evident in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, but it also arises, although less intensely in towns east and north of this area.

The Orange Order was first introduced into Scotland by soldiers who had fought alongside the Orange Yeomanry in Ireland to suppress the Protestant-led rebellion of 1798, but the real bigotry and religious bitterness did not take hold until a later date. Although Scotland was very much a Protestant country, the Scots in general were very tolerant and even sympathetic towards the many thousands of hungry, poverty-stricken Irish Catholics who flooded into Glasgow and the West as a consequence of the terrible famine of 1845-1850.

Many of the immigrants from Belfast in the years that followed were shipyard workers. The Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast were one of the world’s leading ship-builders. Therefore many of these immigrants were former shipyard workers who naturally settled in the Govan area of Glasgow, where they went to work in the Clyde shipyards.

As everywhere else, football was the chief passion of the workers, and the nearest football team was Glasgow Rangers, situated at Ibrox. The staunchly Orange shipyard workers of Northern Ireland supported the local team and gradually gained influence on the management board of Rangers, turning Ibrox into an Orange-ruled bastion of bigotry.

It was Orangeism that turned each Celtic-Rangers match into a focus of religious angst. It is true that Glasgow Celtic has strong Catholic origins but, unlike Rangers, it never operated a religious apartheid system. Some of Celtic’s best players were Protestant, as indeed was their legendary manager Jock Stein. Rangers, on the other hand, refused to sign Catholic players for many years, until circumstances forced them to change this deplorable policy.

Both teams profited greatly from their bigotry-driven support among their respective fans. Both sides were suspicious of the number of cup final games that ended in a draw, necessitating a replay and more money. The suspicion that these draws were “fixed” earned these matches the title of “old firm” games.

Go to a Rangers-Celtic match these days and you will observe an atmosphere like nothing any other fixture can produce. It is not just rivalry; it is enmity and hatred that creates this atmosphere. It is as if both groups of supporters are determined to relive the Battle of the Boyne in their own minds.

Recent incidents, such as the threats to Celtic’s manager, only exacerbate the problem, but the fact remains that Rangers-Celtic games help to keep bigotry on the boil and that same bigotry helps to keep the money coming in for both teams. One can’t help thinking that if bigotry cost the teams money, rather than boosting their profits, more would be done to eradicate it.

The Orange Walk

It happens every July – the marching season! Through the streets of cities in Northern Ireland and Scotland the Orange Walks take place, come rain or shine. With shoulders back and heads held high they march to the beat of bigotry, exhibiting their pride in their Protestant religion although many of them don’t see the inside of a Church from one year’s end to the next.

They prefer to march through predominantly Catholic areas flaunting their delusory “Glorious Protestant victory on the green grassy slopes of the Boyne”. They live in the past, which is folly enough, but even the past they live in is a catalogue of lies; lies manufactured by the rich landlord classes and aristocracy, and after that their capitalist exploiters, to keep the Catholic and Protestant peasantry and working class divided.

Divide and rule, the oldest trick in the book, and they have been fooled by it for two hundred years. As long as they remain in ignorance of the reality of their historical origins they will keep on marching, and they will keep the working class divided by a barrier of blind and pointless bigotry.

Despite its prominence, the Orange movement is not representative of the majority of Scotland’s Protestants. Its current membership is about fifty-thousand, which is only 1% of the country’s population. Nevertheless its strident and proselytizing zeal extends its influence far beyond its core membership.

The first Scottish Orange Lodges in the early 1800’s were of military origin and this is reflected to this day in the Orange Marches with their brass bands, flutes, drums and stirring, often martial style music. By the 1830’s there were full Orange Districts in Airdrie, Ayr, Dumfries, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Stranraer. The leading members have traditionally included many high-ranking army officers, peers of the realm and Conservative MP’s.

When leaders of the Orange Order tried, in co-operation with the Tories, to stop the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act and the Reform of Parliament in 1831 an enquiry into its activities led to William IV ordering the Order to be dissolved in 1836, throwing the movement into disarray. It was not until 1850-51 that the Lodges got their act together again, enrolling in an organisation with the lengthy title of the Grand Protestant Association of Loyal Orangemen of Great Britain (GPALOGB).

In 1859 there was a disturbance at an Orange Walk at Linwood which resulted in loss of life. Consequently the Sheriffs of Ayr, Lanark and Renfrew put a ten year ban on the marches and, when the Grand Lodge acquiesced to the ban, a number of lodges left the order in protest and joined the Liverpool-based Institute of Great Britain. Thus the Orange movement was split in two, but both sections grew in number with the continuing influx of Ulster Protestants into Scotland. In 1876 the two sections reunited again under the current name of the Loyal Orange Institution of Scotland.

In 1918 Orangemen were angered by the Education Act which brought Roman Catholic education under State sponsorship. This, they claimed, not only legitimised religious apartheid, but also enriched the Catholic Church by paying for its school buildings.

The other side of bigotry

Orangeism, of course, is not the only cause of religious bigotry. For many years the Catholic hierarchy has played its part in hardening the religious divide. For a long time the Protestant ruling classes frowned on the concept of mixed marriage, but eventually they faced reality and in 1870/71 made it legal for Catholic Priests to conduct marriage ceremonies between mixed couples.

But the Catholic Archbishop (later cardinal) Paul Cullen of Armagh was determined to make it as difficult as possible for Protestants and Catholics to intermarry. He and his bishops decreed that in cases of mixed marriage the ceremony must henceforth take place in the sacristy, rather than in the main body of the church, without mass or nuptial blessing.

This was a deliberate attempt to humiliate any Protestant who contemplated marrying a Catholic. By treating Protestants as inferiors in this manner the Catholic hierarchy were making a considerable contribution to the build-up of religious bigotry. This was further exacerbated in 1908 by the papal decree Ne Temere which insisted that children of mixed marriages be brought up as Catholics.

Until then it was the tradition that in mixed marriages the sons followed the father’s religion and the daughters followed the mother’s. So another bitter bone of contention was given to the Protestants to chew over and there can be no doubt that the uncompromising interference of the Catholic Church increased the religious tension, and therefore increased the atmosphere of bigotry, between both religions.

Then there is the question of education. In the early 19th century religious segregation in the education system was not a big problem; the Catholic Archbishop Slattery of Cashel (1833-57) was educated at the Protestant Trinity College in Dublin. But later in the century, as education became more widespread and gained in importance, things changed. Protestant schoolteachers would teach classrooms of children of mixed religions that Catholicism was rubbish, and no doubt Catholic teachers would decry Protestantism. So perhaps it was understandable that a demand grew for separate schools.

The Catholic bishops were also alarmed that educated Catholics would go to see ‘lewd’ plays and read inappropriate literature under the ‘bad influence’ of a non-denominational education system. These opinions were strongest in Ireland, but like most religious controversy in Ireland it soon spread to Scotland. No doubt there were plenty of Protestants who were happy with the idea of religious segregation in education; there certainly were plenty in Ulster who felt that way. And so today we have a system in Great Britain where Catholics go to strictly Catholic schools, generally overseen by the Catholic clergy.

During World War II, in cases where state schools were destroyed by bombing, Catholic schools refused to take in ‘Protestant’ children, even temporarily, unless they converted to Catholicism. This narrow-mindedness at such a time did nothing for the Catholic image.

The school question

There are other factors which contribute to the prevailing bigotry that exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the persecution of Irish Catholics for over seven centuries, the annual provocation of the Orange marching season; the ‘Old Firm’ games, the religious segregation in schools and the conditions imposed on mixed marriages by the Catholic Church all play their part in keeping this abhorrent situation going and keeping the Catholic and Protestant working-classes apart.

It would be far better for the ordinary working-class Catholics and Protestants of Scotland and Northern Ireland if they rid themselves of the bane of bigotry and united in the common cause of making a better life for themselves and a better future for their children. So how do we eradicate this problem? Many will shrug their shoulders in despair and say, “It has always been like this and always will be, there’s nothing that can be done”. That is defeatist nonsense! Let us look at some steps that can be taken to help matters.

To begin with, bigotry in Scotland is not as extreme as it is in Ulster. It is true that in the aftermath of ‘Old Firm’ games there are plenty of violent, sometimes even fatal, incidents. These are accompanied by an increase in arrests and an increase in wife-beatings. Apart from the football-related incidents there are other sporadic instances of violent confrontation, but unlike Northern Ireland there are no bombings or systematic shootings such as occurred in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere.

The reason for this is that, despite the barriers to mixed marriage imposed by the Catholic Church, there are many more cases of Catholics and Protestants inter-marrying in Glasgow than, say, in Belfast. As a result most Glaswegians have relatives from both religions, and there are no strictly Catholic or Protestant ghettos in Glasgow. This stops the religious antipathy reaching the intensity we have seen in the Six Counties. This is a good thing for all concerned.

So if the Catholic Church were to remove the petty-minded restrictions imposed on mixed marriages and treat married couples as adults by allowing them to decide for themselves how their children are to be raised, it would considerably relieve the underlying tension between the two religions. But the Catholic hierarchy resists taking such a step, and is thus directly contributing to the cancer of bigotry and sectarianism.

Catholic Schools are nowadays renowned for their excellence. But faith schools of any denomination inevitably help sow the seeds of bigotry by alienating schoolchildren from each other. It has already been said that there was a time when the demand for separate schooling was understandable, but that time is over and done with. If a schoolchild goes to a different school from his little pal next door he wonders why. ‘What makes us different?’ he asks himself, and right away a sense of alienation takes root.

The separation of children into schools divided on religious lines is something we must absolutely reject. It fosters a psychology of separateness, which is the soil on which bigotry thrives. From a very young age, children are brainwashed to believe in “them” and “us”. They are taught that “we” are right and “they” are wrong; that “we” will go to heaven and “they” will go to hell; that “we” are good and “they” are all bad, and so on.

The Catholic Church could argue that children cannot learn their religion properly unless they go to a Catholic school. But this is not so. In Co. Clare a co-operative commune was set up in the estate of John Vandeleur, High Sheriff of the county. It was managed on a socialist basis by Thomas Craig after a meeting of estate workers on 7th November, 1831. They named it The Ralahine Agricultural and Manufacturing Co-operative Association and it was worked by both Catholic and Protestant members of the commune. It was a great success.

Freedom of religious practices was granted to all and religion was taught by both Catholic Priests and Protestant ministers, and by parents, to the pupils concerned. Catholic priest and Protestant minister approved of the system and people came from all over Britain to marvel at this community that prospered so well in the midst of a strife-torn country. If that system had been applied all over Ireland there would have been a very different and much happier history of Ireland to write about. Of course, for that to happen power would have had to be in different hands, those of the ordinary working people who have no real material interest in continuing the conflict.

Unfortunately, the co-operative was brought to an end after two years when Vandeleur had to sell his estate to pay off gambling debts. At its closure the Catholic and Protestant workers signed a joint declaration stating that they had lived for two years in a state of unprecedented happiness. All this was achieved at a time of extreme Catholic-Protestant agitation, and without any call for children to attend different schools.

The effect of this separation on impressionable children is stronger than society generally realises, and there is no good reason for it. Reading, writing and arithmetic are exactly the same no matter what school you attend. The same goes for history, geography, geometry, algebra, poetry, music and any other subject you care to mention. So why have separate schools? The answer, once again is easy to come to if one looks at the class interests involved, and the need to apply the concept of ‘Divide and Rule’.

Questions to an Orangeman

If Orangemen examine the historical facts, and then face the undeniable truth, they will inevitably come to the conclusion that they have been duped, first by the aristocracy, and then by the capitalist establishment. They have been used as tools by the aforementioned to keep the working-class Catholics and Protestants divided and suppressed. That truth is a bitter pill to swallow, but the sooner it is swallowed the better.

Let every member of the Orange Order study the ideals he or she purports to stand for. Then compare those ideals with the historical truth:

1) The Protestant ethic is one of tolerance for other people’s faiths and ideals. It is this tolerance and liberty that the Orange Order claims it promotes and defends. If this is one of the principles of Orangeism then why did the Orange Order oppose Catholic emancipation? How can you claim to be tolerant when you tried to deny Catholics the right to vote? And what about that great champion of your cause, the so-called ‘reverend’ Ian Paisley? The man is a throw-back to the Middle Ages and is looked upon throughout the English-speaking world as the very personification of intolerance and bigotry. In view of this, how can the Orange order claim to be the defenders of tolerance and liberty?

2) Your founders adopted the name ‘Orange’ because they claimed that William III was the Monarch most associated with freedom and democracy. Yet, after the Scottish Presbyterians who had settled in Ulster spilled their blood for him he denied them the right to practise their religion, just as he did the Catholics. He made them pay tithes to the Anglican Church, just as he did the Catholics. By his vile treachery he caused 200,000 disillusioned and despairing Presbyterians to leave Ulster and emigrate to America. Your great ‘Protestant hero’ was a self-interested back-stabber who used you and then betrayed you. And furthermore, your glorious Protestant victory at the Boyne was in fact a papal victory, partly paid for and first celebrated by the Catholic Church. All of this is true, and not exaggerated in the slightest degree.

Yet it is not too late to correct matters. If you are looking for a real Protestant hero then look at the example of Wolfe Tone, a man who dedicated his life to the fight for justice for both Catholics and Protestants. Now there is a man, and a cause, worth marching for.

And take a good look at the ordinary working-class Irish Catholics in both the South and the North of Ireland. For eight hundred years they were persecuted: persecuted by Anglo-Norman invaders who did so with the full blessing of the Pope, persecuted by the Tudors; persecuted by Cromwell, persecuted by the rich landlords who stole their land then made virtual slaves of them; and even persecuted by the ungrateful and haughty hierarchy of their own Church. Isn’t it time they had a break? After all, in the Republic of Ireland the Protestant minority 1suffer no persecution or prejudicial mistreatment. It is true that the percentage of Protestants in the South has reduced from 10% to 3%. But that was because so many Protestants decided to leave the new Republic; it was their own choice, they were not driven out.

Both the Orange Order and the Catholic Hierarchy have conspired to split the working class with their religious bigotry and paranoia about socialism. Isn’t it about time for the working class, whether Protestants or Catholics, to unite and fight together in an endeavour to create a better life for each other? It can be done. They can be united in a common cause. Wolf Tone did it. James Connolly did it. James Larkin did it. And there is no reason why it cannot be done again. All that is needed to cut across the sectarian divide is a determined and class conscious lead.

What can be done?

Both the Catholic and Protestant religions are supposed to be following the words of Christ, but you will find nothing in the New Testament that could justify the bigotry, the mutual hatred and the pointless bloodshed that has been shed in the past. The message of Christ to his followers was supposed to be: ‘Love one another’. It does not say: You must hate people just because they do or do not go to Mass. The so-called Christian message of the bigots on both sides reeks of moral hypocrisy.

What attitude should socialists take to this question? In the first place, there is an issue of democracy that ought to have been solved two hundred years ago. The radical separation of religion and state is an elementary principle of democracy. It was no accident that this principle was adopted by the Founding Fathers in the American Constitution in the 18th Century. But nowadays, in the epoch of capitalism’s senile decay this democratic principle is under attack. In the USA, the religious right is spending vast amounts of money to reintroduce religion into politics and government.

All of the Republican Presidential candidates are religious fanatics to one degree or another. Instead of the scientific theories of Charles Darwin, they wish to teach children that the world was created in six days, that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and that the first woman was made out of Adam’s rib. They oppose abortion and wish to ban scientific research into stem cells that could save millions of lives.

This insidious invasion of religion into government, politics and education is a completely reactionary development that must be combated. In Britain the same phenomenon exists, although it may be less vocal. Tony Blair and the other leaders of so-called New Labour played a lamentable role in this respect, as in all others. Blair and Bush are said to have prayed to God together before bombing hell out of the people of Iraq. Blair was personally responsible for pushing the current craze for “Faith-based education” while he was in Number 10. He later announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Now the Lib-Dem-Con Coalition is continuing and deepening this retrograde trend.

This is a thoroughly reactionary development, not only because it divides children along religious lines, but because it is a disguised attack on state education and a dishonest cover for cuts in public spending on education. No progress can be made in the war against bigotry unless and until educational religious apartheid is extirpated root and branch. The education of children is far too important a matter to be entrusted to priests and nuns, or for that matter, to mullahs and rabbis. We stand for the abolition of all private education – including the so-called “faith schools” and the introduction of a single, state education that is universal, obligatory and completely free at all levels.

Not a single penny of public money should go to subsidise the churches, either directly or indirectly. We oppose any public money being given to so-called “Faith schools”. Education is a right for every child, and no child should be excluded from, or chosen for, a given school because of his or her religious beliefs. If parents wish to indoctrinate their children in a particular creed, they must do so in their own time and pay for it with their own money. But religion has no place in our schools, which must be 100% secular and scientific, as befits a civilized society in the 21st century.

As the reader has probably gathered, the author of these articles is not religious, but he has a great deal of affection for the ordinary working-class Catholics and Protestants of whom he writes. He does not want to believe that generations of children as yet unborn will grow up hating each other because they are being taught different versions of Christianity.

The final solution to religious bigotry, superstition and obscurantism of all sorts lies in a root-and-branch change in society. A genuinely humane society in which everybody would be guaranteed a job, a house, a living wage, a good education for their children and decent provision for sickness and old age, would lay the basis for eliminating the dog-eat-dog mentality and removing the unhealthy competition between working people that is the real basis of racism and bigotry.

It is the duty of every class-conscious worker to fight for the sacred unity of our class. The only hope for working-class Catholics and Protestants if they want a better future for themselves and their children is to fight against social injustice, for a better life – for a socialist future.

[H.Whittaker, the author is a lifelong trade union activist in the building industry, who has dedicated his life to the cause of the working class and socialism. He was born and bred in Glasgow, where he now lives, and has written several articles for]

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.