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Goretti Horgan


No going back

(May 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland
Fionnuala O’Connor
Blackstaff Press £8.95

In Search of a State is a powerful argument for class politics as the only way to end sectarian division and violence in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t set out to offer a class analysis. Its author, Fionnuala O’Connor, leans to the left but dismisses the idea of working class unity as a dream that ‘a few cling to’. In spite of this, she presents powerful evidence of class as the main divide in Northern Ireland today.

While Catholics are still under-represented in many high status, well paid jobs, O’Connor shows how, since direct rule by Britain was introduced in 1972, there has been a steady rise in the number of Catholics holding these jobs.

About 30 percent of managers and administrators in both private and public sectors are Catholics. The civil service, the North’s biggest employer and once a byword for discrimination, is now 35 percent Catholic at management level.

This new Catholic middle class likes to flaunt its new found prosperity.

For these people, the argument about the Northern state is largely over. They are happy with the status quo economically and socially. Culturally and politically they still have some problems. They don’t like the continuing Britishness of formal occasions and their implied second class citizenship at such times. And they’re very clear that they’re not going to accept a return to Stormont – the pre-civil rights days when Unionist domination was secured by gerrymandering and discrimination.

But these problems are not seen as insurmountable. There is a strong consensus among middle and ruling class people of all religions that the future lies in some kind of Joint Authority or federal Ireland within the European Community.

Sir George Quigley, chairman of the Ulster Bank, the Northern Ireland Economic Council and many top civil servants have already argued the need for ‘an island economy’ which ignores the border. John Hume insists that a ‘Europe of the Regions’ will solve the problem of partition without too much pain. Even Sinn Fein, who used to be implacable opponents of the EC, recently opened a permanent office in Brussels.

But for the overwhelming majority of working class Catholics, there has been little change apart from improved housing. What worries them is grinding poverty, the prospect of seeing their children join them on the dole queues and continuing harassment by the British army and the RUC. They still support the Provos and look to a united Ireland.

Some of those O’Connor talked to said they were struck by the similarity with the growth of the black middle class in the US and the growing gulf among Northern Catholics between the new rich and those left in the ghetto, ‘who now see themselves as victims twice over – in Northern Ireland first, discriminated against by the Unionist state, and next abandoned and then criticised by people whose rise they believe is largely a result of a campaign of protest about disadvantage they themselves still suffer.’

More than one of O’Connor’s interviewees made the point that the Catholic middle class had ‘made it on the shoulders of the poor’ and now criticise those left in the ghetto because they continue to support Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Yet all the evidence points to unemployment and poverty as the main causes of support for the IRA.

O’Connor points out that the 80 local government areas where unemployment is lowest are exclusively or predominantly Protestant. Of the 50 wards where unemployment is highest, 45 are Catholic, including the top eight. Catholic men remain 2.2 times more likely to be unemployed than Protestant men and 67 percent of the long term male unemployed are Catholics.

But more and more Protestant workers are being dragged into poverty as the economic crisis cuts deep.

The traditional areas of employment for Protestant workers have all but disappeared. And when Protestant workers look for an explanation of the changes that have happened over the last 20 years, what they see is the conspicuous wealth of a new Catholic middle class.

In the absence of any other – socialist – explanation, many Protestant workers accept that their growing poverty is caused by growing Catholic prosperity. So they continue to support the Unionist parties and to look to the United Kingdom.

It isn’t that Protestant workers are the dupes of Loyalism or Catholic workers are the dupes of nationalism.

There is a growing realisation among Catholic and Protestant workers alike that going back – to a capitalist united Ireland, or to the days when Britain wanted the Union – is no longer an option. What is clear from In Search of a State is that, whatever the settlement reached over the coming year or two, it could work for the middle class but will do nothing to end the sectarianism which causes the violence.

Giving equal recognition to the two ‘traditions’ or identities will solve the cultural and political grievances of the Catholic middle class. But it would put Protestant and Catholic working class communities in competition with each other for ever scarcer resources. And that is a recipe for festering sectarianism and continuing violence.

What the book doesn’t contain is a hint of the deep anger felt by workers on all sides at the continuing attack on their living standards. If that anger is channelled into a fight against the Tories instead of against fellow workers, things could be very different. It could allow another ‘identity’ to emerge – a working class identity that cuts across the two communities and unites workers in defence of their interests as a class.

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