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Northern Ireland: “The Democratic Deficit Facilitates Sectarian Conflict” (1922/2015)


One of the unintended consequences of the Scottish Referendum was the re opening of the debate regarding the lack of choice presented to the 1.24 million (1) voters in Northern Ireland.
Currently none of the three major Westminster Parties who are likely to be in any UK Government have formal organisational structures or run candidates for election in the Province.

Precarity UK Think Tank believes this is terrible for democracy and could lead to a return to the civil war situation that cost 3,636 lives in the late 20th century. (2)

We need to be clear about the language used to describe the unfolding, bloody and often indiscriminate violence that tore this country, part of the United Kingdom, apart between 1969-98.

The sobriquet, “The Troubles” was the preferred vernacular in the media and in politics. We find this description frankly offensive and a mealy mouthed attempt to minimise the impact of the conflict. The Oxford English Dictionary defines, “war” as, “a state of armed conflict between different countries, or different groups within a country.”(3)

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck then there is a fair chance that it is, to all intents and purposes a duck. The pain and suffering inflicted by the combatants on all sides cannot be washed away; those left behind live their pain on a daily basis. “Troubles” conjures up ideas of minor inconveniences. “I had troubles travelling due to the traffic”. Or, “My tooth is giving me trouble”.

The war in Northern Ireland had long standing causes; nationalism versus loyalism, a corrupt political system and above all a lack of democratic engagement with the rest of the UK or indeed the neighbouring Irish Republic. The Stormont Parliament was dominated by one section of the community who used their power to subjugate not only members of other communities but also the working class as a whole.

The Protestant working class were told that they had the whip hand over their Catholic neighbours, and whilst this was to an extent true, (better access to housing and jobs plus gerrymandered councils such as existed in Derry) conditions in areas such as the Shankhill Road area of Belfast were no better for their Protestant residents.

Academic Peter Hadden says, “A 1969 survey of Belfast’s (largely Protestant) Shankhill Road found that 90% of the homes had no hot water, no bath and no inside toilet. Of the households in this district, 2/3 had an income of under £13 per week. In the Upper Shankhill area, 27% lived in less than £5 per week”. (4)

indeed the situation across the Province demonstrated that the North had been left behind by the post war period of economic growth that had seen living standards soar in the UK as a whole. Hadden notes, “Across the North living standards lagged far behind those of Britain. Unemployment was over twice the British level. 14% of the adult males in Britain earned less than £14 per week in 1967. In the North the figure was 30 %”(5)

The Stormont Parliament reflected the religious demographics of the time and was dominated by the Unionist Party who governed alone until the 1974 Sunningdale Accord which UK Prime Minister Edward Heath hoped would end what was in effect a one party state in the Province. Events however overwhelmed this attempt at power sharing.

Basil Brooke, who was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland between 1943 and 1963 perhaps sums up just how isolated and out of touch the ruling class in the Province had become from the rest of the UK. Born into Fermanagh farming aristocracy as the fifth generation of Baronets, Brooke attended Winchester College and then graduated as an Officer in the British Army from Sandhurst. In 1929 he entered the Commons at Stormont and served in the Cabinet for thirty three years, with 20 of those being as Prime Minister.

His philosophy, and the outlook of the elite ruling class was summed up thus in an address to an Orange Order gathering whilst serving as Minister for Agriculture, “Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I have not one about my place. Catholics are out to destroy Ulster…If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work on our farms we are traitors to Ulster…I would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible, to employ good Protestant lads and lassies”.

Precarity UK encourages you to make a leap of judgement here. It would be easy for us to characterise Brooke as an out and out sectarian and a religious bigot as the sentiments in his statement reflect that outlook. Instead let’s substitute, “Catholic” with, “Trade Unionist”, or, “Worker” and you have the ethos of the ruling class in the UK as a whole in summary. When amended like that, you could just as easily hear Churchill, Stanley Baldwin or any other Tory of that era speaking.

The reason that Brooke won election after election for the Unionist Party is that each ballot held in the Province was in effect a referendum on the Border and whether or not Northern Ireland should cede from the UK. Thus the dire state of housing, public services and the economy in general were not up for debate. Protestant workers were lobby fodder and the bogey man of the Republic south of the border, priest ridden and backward was enough to ensure the Unionist ruling class epitomised by Brooke stayed in power.

What of Labour and the Left in Stormont Ulster? The Northern Ireland Labour Party pre the 1921 Partition was organised around the Trade Unions which were strong in the Belfast industrial sector. Thus the membership was overwhelmingly Protestant. Post Partition the Party decided not to take a line on the border issue and was swamped electorally as politics in the Province polarised. It then decided to become pro Union at its 1949 conference which unsurprisingly lost it any residual support in the Catholic/ Nationalist community.

When Civil Rights came to the fore in Ulster due to the shining of light into the discrimination faced by Catholics, the NILP attempted with some success to organise in the Nationalist community and succeeded in becoming the official opposition in the Commons. The advent of war in 1969 thrust polarisation back into Ulster politics with the rise of the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) under the leadership of Gerry Fitt.

The NILP and Left in general failed the people of Ulster by not identifying and organising around the issues that mattered such as chronically poor housing, bad health outcomes and unemployment. The Labour Party in the UK achieved some notable successes in the inter war period around such concerns, and especially after 1945. You can read about this in our book, “Through Red Lenses: It Was Labour Which Made Britain Great”. Click here: http://www.searchingfinance.com/products/books-econ-politics-finance/through-red-lenses-the-place-of-the-labour-party-in-british-politics-1900-2010.html to buy.
The main opposition at Stormont was provided by the Nationalist Party. They never stood a chance of power due to the entrenched Unionist Commons majority and their Parliamentary participation was summed up thus by their inter war leader T.J Campbell, “”I went there (out) of duty, not of desire”. (6)

There were twelve general elections to the House of Commons at Stormont between 1921/73. Each and every one saw the Unionist Party victorious, and with an overwhelming majority. The abolition of proportional representation (which was intended to give minorities a voice) for local and Parliamentary elections only served to entrench the status quo.

This democratic deficit meant that real, inclusive and participatory politics never stood a chance. The UK government was oblivious as to what was going on in the Province until it affected them directly via bad international TV coverage regarding Civil Rights.
The case of Emily Beattie became a notorious example of how the Catholic community was on the wrong end of blatant discrimination. In 1968 the 19 year old, single, local government worker was offered a council property whilst two local Catholic families were over looked. Austin Currie, the local National Westminster MP squatted in the house as a protest saying, “if we had waited a thousand years we would not have got a better example (of discrimination)” (7)

This was an example of the complete failure of politics in the Province to make a difference to people’s day to day lives, with disastrous consequences for the next thirty or so years . Currie was an elected MP at Westminster, yet the Local Authority in Dungannon felt it could simply ignore his entreaties on behalf of his constituents. The fact that Miss. Beattie was also the secretary to the local Unionist Prospective Parliamentary candidate only served to make matters worse in the eyes of a now interested national UK media.

Taking its inspiration from the Civil Rights movement in the US which saw Martin Luther King lead a none violent wave of protest regarding the position of African Americans in society, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) took an extra Parliamentary route to raising awareness in the rest of the UK, the Irish Republic and beyond about the discrimination facing Catholics. There were efforts to reach out across the religious divide and Ivan Cooper was a high profile Protestant activist. But a failure to identify the root causes of poverty across society meant that NICRA only appealed to the younger, educated middle class Protestants, many who had only first rubbed shoulders with Catholics at University.

As a result NICRA marches and demos became targets for the overtly sectarian police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) and their thuggish part time paramilitary arm, the “B” Specials. There were a series of violent clashes initiated by the RUC which came to a head at the notorious Burntollett Bridge battle in January 1969. A NICRA March was ambushed by Loyalists including future First Minister Ian Paisley. According to a report conducted by the University of Ulster at Coleraine, “A crowd including 100 “off duty” RUC officers and “B” Specials attacked the civil rights marchers from adjacent high ground. Stones transported in bulk were used in the assault, as well as iron bars and sticks spiked with nails. Many of the marchers described their assailants’ lack of concern about the police presence which is corroborated by TV footage”.(8)

This incident lit the touch paper that exploded into all out war that hot August in 1969. Why?

Because had Burntollett happened in any other functioning democracy there would have been immediate action by elected Ministers and the Government as whole. Instead the Prime Minister, an old Etonian Army Captain called Terrence O’Neil blamed the marchers for the violence and for the subsequent rioting in Derry. O’Neill could not be held to democratic account because of the basket case that was the Stormont House of Commons. The only “opposition” O’Neill ever faced came from his ultra Unionist side via Ian Paisley. The fiery churchman had accused O’Neill of, “crawling to the Roman Catholic Church” (9) when the Province’s Prime Minister met with Taoiseach Sean Lemass in early 1965 to discuss mutually beneficial economic projects.

As the “White Heat of Technology” drove the rest of the UK into the ‘sixties, Ulster was stuck in the past. And there was no chance of change with a moribund House of Commons at Stormont dominated as it was by landowning “old money”, just the sort of people that had been swept away by Harold Wilson and the newly invigorated Labour Party in the 1964 UK general election.

The Catholic working class was clean out of options, and the same became true of the newly educated Catholics that had benefitted, (ironically) from the life opportunities given to them under the 1944 Education Act. John Hume from Derry was one such example. A teacher in the city, he had come to prominence not through joining a political party to change things, but by starting up a Credit Union in Derry.
This gave Catholic working class families access to consumer credit and savings for the first time. But these practical measures could never make a difference to the extent that access to democratic power could. Everyday politics was sown up.

The same was inherently true for the Protestant community but the sway of demagogues such as Ian Paisley and Home Affairs Minister, the hard line Unionist William Craig, meant there were no alternative progressive voices to be heard on that side of the divide either.

Thus the inevitable happened. Where the poor were left gagged and feeling ignored and powerless, the gun returned to Irish politics with a vengeance. The war was the failure of successive Westminster Governments to deal with Northern Ireland and bring it into the fold.
Similarly the Governments in Dublin used the Catholic working class as pawns and a distraction from the dire inequalities at play south of the border. Finance Minister Charles Haughey and his Fianna Fail Party side kick Neil Blaney decided in 1969 that smuggling guns to the North using government funds took precedence over fixing the economy. Both were sacked by Taoiseach Jack Lynch. Haughey later succeeded Lynch and in 1981 ended up in face to face negotiations with Margaret Thatcher over the future of the North.

Atrocity after atrocity was fuelled by economic grievances and with no visible means of redress sections of the Nationalist Community became enthralled to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). This was a truly tragic situation.

It is easy to be judgemental. It is easy to condemn the young people that the blood soaked ghouls of PIRA and its so called (risibly) political wing, Sinn Fein entrapped. Democracy was a farce and with the Province cast adrift by the rest of the UK it is little wonder that idealistic young men and women were attracted to the ultimately nihilistic and destructive PIRA organisation.

As PIRA wrecked havoc across Ulster so grew up the mirror image of destruction without hope in the guise of the Ulster Defence Association (not banned until 1988), the Ulster Volunteer Force and other splinter groups who believed that the Army and the RUC were incapable of defending the Protestant community.

In 1988 very few people believed Northern Ireland could be dragged down any further into the gutter. But it could, and how. That spring saw three Republicans killed in a cemetery by loyalist gunman Michael Stone. The occasion had been the funerals of a PIRA active service unit slain by the SAS whilst attempting a base and cowardly car bombing on the British enclave of Gibraltar. The nadir was reached when two off duty soldiers were dragged from their car, stripped and summarily murdered by a baying mob at the funeral of one of Stone’s victims. No one was without blame.

1993 finally saw not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning (to paraphrase Churchill who was talking about El Alamein) of Ulster Long War when both PIRA and the UK Government reached the conclusion that neither could ever “win”. Once again a spasm of bloodlust engulfed the Province and the abyss of a full scale breakdown of law and order seemed on the cards.

In a disgusting act of bravado Sinn Fein/ PIRA leader Gerry Adams volunteered to carry the coffin of Thomas Begley who had been killed murdering nine Protestants including two children aged 7 and 13. The bomber’s device went off prematurely in a fish shop on the Shankhill Road in October of that year. The inevitable death spiral ensued. 14 Catholics were slain in one week including 8 at a pub in Greysteel, Co Derry. In a truly chilling twist with the date being 30th October the gunmen shouted, “Trick or treat?” before opening fire.

Dermot: “I just remember the sheer hopelessness many of us with connections to the Province felt. A close friend from Belfast and I wept tears of frustration. We truly believed full scale war was inevitable at this point. I had witnessed the events of 1988 in the community and thought this situation we faced now was worse and irreversible. My mate said, “Do you want talks with PIRA or do you want all out civil war, that’s the choice”. He was right”.

Unbeknown to the rest of us UK Prime Minister John Major had the moral courage to think and do the unthinkable; open up a channel to PIRA. Following the bloodbath in October 1993, the Observer revealed that PIRA had declared that the, “conflict is over, but we need your advice as to the means of bringing it to a close” in a message sent to Major via the channel. (10)

Events moved surprisingly quickly by the standards of the war and on 31st August 1994 PIRA announced, “a complete cessation of military operations” (11)

But this was far from the end of the war. To paraphrase Churchill who was speaking about the 1942 victory at El Alamien, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning”.

To start with there was the vexed question of semantics. Anyone with a smattering of knowledge regarding Irish politics will realise that every word, ever letter and every piece of syntax is poured over for ever and a day to search for any sleight of hand real or imaginary. In addition no one can ever be seen to cede a millimetre or ground or give any sense that they may lose face. Thus PIRA refused to entertain the word “permanent”. This was seized upon by Unionists that the cessation was a tactic. This was not helped by revelations that PIRA was still collecting intelligence on possible targets and had not stood down its members from training and other military related activities.

John Major was boxed in to a corner. His Commons majority was in tatters following Tory splits over Europe and a series of by election defeats. This story can be read in “Through Red Lenses”, now on Amazon. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Through-Red-Lenses-Labour-Britain/dp/1907720693/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422199490&sr=1-1&keywords=dermot+rathbone

Major’s determination over Northern Ireland was a surprise, but a welcomed one all the same. Nevertheless Major was not a politician in the traditional sense of the word. By this we mean that he did not live for the machinations and back stabbing of the Westminster Bubble. He was a straight talker and lacked the imagination for intrigue. This is perhaps why he achieved a record 14 million votes in 1992 for the Tories; the public wanted more consensus and less plotting. But it left him exposed when dealing with the notorious volatile Northern Irish politicians who specialised in complete deafness to the views of others; one meeting with Paisley ended with the DUP leader being chucked out of Number Ten for continually calling the PM a liar. (12)

His successor in Number Ten was the absolute opposite.

Tony Blair stormed into Office following Labour 1997 landslide. As usual the people of Ulster were denied any say in which Party was to rule over them in the next Parliament. The Province returned 10 Unionists, 2 members of the Paisley led Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein elected 2 members who refused to attend and Bob McCartney was sent as an Independent Unionist.

McCartney called for Northern Ireland to be fully integrated into the UK with the main parties organising and contesting elections, but crucially he was totally opposed to devolution. His aim was to outflank Irish Nationalism and silence any voices for Catholic involvement in Government and he was implacably against the Republic having any say in Northern Ireland’s affairs.

Blair had to deal with a collapse in the Peace Process caused by Major’s inability to break finally with the Unionist Party who were demanding the PIRA hand over all weapons before being admitted to all Party talks. There was no precedence for this is any other conflict resolution. The “decommissioning” issue could never be 100% verified as no one outside PIRA know what was where.

There was a feeling that Unionist leaders such as David Trimble and Paisley were out toughing each other to court votes and that they knew very well that PIRA/ Sinn Fein could not be seen to engage in any act of “surrender” without causing a major schism in the Republican Movement.
Major stated that elections to a pre talks convention would not see Sinn Fein at the table unless PIRA gave up their weapons. Once again the failure of politics not connected and rooted in rival communities meant that instead of thrashing things out via conventional means a return to war became almost inevitable. Major’s lack of imagination and inability to act an honest, unbiased broker allowed PIRA/ Sinn Fein to paint him as a puppet of Unionism.

Tragedy struck once again and working class people, not the vested interests paid the price. Inan Bashir and John Jeffries were killed as PIRA detonated a massive bomb in London’s Docklands on 9th February 1996. This was followed nine days later by the death of 22 year old baker Edward O’Brien who was in the process of transporting an IED on the 171 London bus.

Yet another young life had been needlessly taken by the blood soaked ghouls of Gerry Adams and his gurning side kick Martin McGuinness. What the O’Brien would have made of the latter taking tea for the cameras before becoming Ian Paisley’s number two at Stormont in 2007 would be interesting. But we will never know as another life was given up for these men’s cringing ambition and boundless hubris.

That June an act of pure gangterism saw Garda Gerry McCabe slain in Co. Limerick during a botched bank robbery and later that moth 200 were injured and maimed by a huge bomb detonated by PIRA in Manchester. The intensity of the war returned to pre 1994 levels (13) as Westminster considerations trumped all else.

The grotesque “Marching Season” which is the means by which the ruling class manipulate the emotions of the Protestant working class resulting in an orgy of Catholic baiting, took centre stage during the Major years. Sinn Fein/ IRA took full advantage to exact the same sort of control on the Nationalist community.

The Orange Order annual march in and around the largely Nationalist area of Portadown, County Armagh had been a running sore for most of the 20th century due to its passage down the wholly Nationalist Garvagy Road. The situation blew up in spectacular style in 1985 following a RUC ban on a St. Patrick’s Day parade in the town whilst no such prohibition was placed on the Orange Order July march. The presence of rent a mob US Senator and relative of IRA apologist Ted Kennedy, Eunice Shriver ensured trouble was guaranteed with widespread rioting and destruction of property took place.

The vacuum of conventional politics in Ulster was encapsulated in Portadown each and every July as working people fought with each other with the facilitation of the RUC/UDR on one side, and Sinn Fein/PIRA on the other. 1986 saw the death of Catholic resident Keith White at the hands of an RUC officer wielding a gun firing plastic bullets.

The nadir in Portadown was nearly reached in 1995 when Ian Paisley and David Trimble locked arms in a blatant act of sectarian triumphalism on the Garvaghy Road. Both sought to garner votes from working class Protestants and this meant roughing up a few Nationalist along the way so what? They were joined by known Paramilitaries including the notorious Billy Wright. At a public meeting a speaker said the following, “Sectarian means you belong to a particular sect or organisation. I belong to the Orange Institution. Bigot means you look after the people you belong to. That’s what I’m doing. I’m a sectarian bigot and proud of it.” (13)

But perhaps the best example of why the democratic deficit has wrought such terrible consequences for working people is best summed up by Ghoul in Chief for Sinn Fein/ IRA Gerry Adams, “Ask any activist in the north, ‘did Drumcree happen by accident?’, and he will tell you, ‘no’. Three years of work on the lower Ormeau Road, Portadown and parts of Fermanagh and Newry, Armagh and in Bellaghy and up in Derry. Three years of work went into creating that situation and fair play to those people who put the work in. They are the type of scene changes that we have to focus on and develop and exploit” (15)

Only one organisation has consistently held the line against sectarianism in all its base and divisive forms. Unlike the Islington crowd of wannabee trendy lefties epitomised by Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway who enjoy the vicarious thrill of rubbing up against violence without ever suffering from any consequences, the Militant newspaper and its offspring the Socialist Party have never had any truck with those seeking to inflame working people to kill each other.

Corbyn argues that he was trying to help when, in a crass act of insensitivity he invited Gerry Adams to visit Parliament in 1984, just weeks after the Brighton bomb had endangered the lives of hotel workers and staff as well as killing and maiming members and associates of the Conservative Government.

Precarity has one simple question. How many members of the Loyalist paramilitaries and their representatives did Corbyn meet or share platforms with during the war? Thought so. None whatsoever.
Socialists in the Province organised tirelessly and often in dangerous situations to argue against the myth that PIRA could somehow be the vanguard for a transition to a Socialist society. How mindless acts such as the Enniskillen Poppy Day Massacre which took the lives of 11 could pre curser a non sectarian Socialist Ireland defies any rational argument.

Recent events surrounding the Kevin McGuigan murder, which has all the hallmarks of a PIRA Army Council sanctioned “hit”, have once again brought into sharp focus how dysfunctional politics in the Province remains. The Chair of Sinn Fein (who hold the Deputy First Minister portfolio amongst others) was arrested in September 2015 in connection with Mr. McGuigan’s murder. The DUP and the Ulster Unionists fell over themselves to be the first to the exit door thereby collapsing the devolved administration.

Precarity believes that this democratic deficit will eventually cause Stormont to fall. If it wasn’t the issues arising in late summer 2015, then it will be something else, especially when elections are imminent and the race to the bottom of sectarian politics is in full flow.

The war cost over 3,500 lives. Never again.

Notes and Sources.
1) Figures quoted by BBC Northern Ireland from the electoral register. December 2013.
2) “Lost Lives” (1999 Mainstream Publishing ISBN 1-84018-227-X). By David McKittrick et al. Page 1474.
3) The Oxford English Dictionary, online version: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/war
4) Peter Haddon. “Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement”. October 1988.http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/hadden/1988/10/lessonscrm.html
5) Ibid.
6) “Fifty Years of Ulster”, (1940) by T.J Campbell. Irish News Press
7) Disturbances in Northern Ireland, Report of the Cameron Commission appointed by the Governor of Northern Ireland, Cmnd 532, HMSO, London, 1969, p. 21. Quoted by the University of Ulster at Colerainehttp://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/discrimination/gudgin99.htm
8) “The People’s Democracy March” Report by the University of Ulster at Coleriane 30th July 2014http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/pdmarch/sum.htm
9) Paisley speaking on RTE, 20th February 1969 http://www.rte.ie/archives/exhibitions/1042-northern-ireland-1969/1043-stormont-election/320089-paisley-accuses-oneill/
10) The Observer Sunday 28th November 1993 http://www.theguardian.com/uk/1993/nov/28/northernireland
11) As reported by the BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/31/newsid_3605000/3605348.stm
12) http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/mar/02/40-years-politics-ian-paisley
13) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_Provisional_Irish_Republican_Army_actions_(1990%E2%80%9399)#1995
14) Dominic Bryan. Drumcree and the “Right to March”: Orangeism, Ritual and Politics in Northern Ireland, in T G Fraser, ed.,The Irish Parading Tradition: Following the Drum, Houndmills 2000, p.194.
15) Orange Order troublemakers need to be disciplined”. Irish Independent. 14 July 2002.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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