Growing up half-Irish in the 1970s, I was more than aware of the so-called ‘Troubles’ – the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between Loyalists (Protestants) and Republicans (Catholic). And the presence of the British Army, brought in officially as peacekeepers but as became clear very quickly Republicans – to maintain the UK’s control of the province.
My Irish grandmother pumped my brain full of the Catholic Republican narrative of Irish history where the British (or English and Normans) plus their Protestant Loyalist allies were the baddies – and all Catholics and Republicans were the victims of eight centuries of oppression. I’d have probably gone along with this binary view of the Troubles if I hadn’t been exposed to the Marxist point of view.
Or, more to the point, the Militant’s analysis. Because not everybody who called themselves a Marxist took what was sometimes dismissed as a ‘workerist’ perspective. In a nutshell, Militant argued that both Catholic and Protestant communities were divided along class lines and the objective of any socialist, let alone Marxist, should be the rejection of sectarianism and the building of a workers’ party.
There had been a class-based working class party since the partition of Ireland in the 1920s – the Northern Ireland Labour Party – and it had done surprisingly well in past elections to Westminster and the Stormont parliament in Belfast. But by the 1970s, it had been split apart by sectarian divisions and its support base had deserted to the Republican SDLP and the Loyalist DUP.
As I began to re-appraise Irish history along class lines, the idea of monolithic blocs of eternally reactionary Unionists versus progressive Republicans began to fall apart. The discovery that Irish nationalism could be just as hostile to socialism as right-wing Unionism. That Irish Protestants had played a leading role in resistance struggles of the past. The sectarianism of orange Protestants and green Catholics revealed itself as a policy of divide and rule.
One amusing aside, I can’t resist. At the 2006 Labour Party Conference in Manchester – where I was a delegate – I bumped into the veteran Loyalist politician Ian Paisley (1926-2014) who was about to become First Minister of Northern Ireland. I wasn’t completely sober, I hasten to add, and it was 2am in the morning.
Anyway I told Paisley that my Irish Republican grandmother had taught me to play both the Orange and Green ‘standards’ (songs) on the piano as a child.
Paisley: “Why did she do that then?”
Me: “Because she said whatever pub I found myself in around Belfast, I’d be able to play my way out of there.”
Paisley (grabbing my arm): “Well she was a very wise woman.”
She was indeed. And would have been horrified that I had shared any words with a man she regarded as the devil incarnate in the 1970s. Pictured above is a leaflet for a meeting in 1981 to discuss the Militant position on Ireland.