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The Reconstruction of Bourgeois Order in Northern Ireland

John Newsinger teaches at Bath Spa University College.His most recent book is Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1997).

In April, the Northern Ireland process finally resulted in an agreement reached under the chairmanship of U.S. Senator John Mitchell. The so-called Good Friday Agreement, which is to be put to a referendum on May 22, proposed the establishment of a power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly (with the prospect of Sinn Fein actually joining a Northern Ireland executive), a cross-border Council of Ireland to reassure the Nationalist community that their interests are protected, and a British Council to similarly reassure the Unionists. A major concession to the Unionists is the proposal that the Irish Republic drop its constitutional claim to the North. There is also an understanding that the prisoners from those paramilitary organizations accepting the agreement will be released within two years of its implementation.

According to opinion polls, 70 percent of the people of Northern Ireland support the Agreement and there is every indication that there will be a decisive “yes” vote in the referendum. At long last, it seems that a war which has lasted since 1969 and claimed over 3,600 lives is coming to an end. Considerable problems still remain. The Orange Order remains wedded to its annual celebration of Protestant Ascendancy regardless of the consequences. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party remains a model of bigoted, sectarian intransigence and is campaigning against the Agreement and in support of renewed war. And the thankfully tiny Loyalist Volunteer Force is still committed to the random murder of Catholics. Nevertheless, at long last, it seems as if a settlement with broad enough support, backed by the British, Irish, and American governments, has been reached.

While the Northern Ireland war has been a small-scale affair, it will not do to underestimate its intensity. If the same ratio of deaths to population were generated by a war in Britain then the death toll would be over 100,000; in the United States it would be more than half a million.1 Nevertheless, while the end of the war is certainly to be welcomed, it is important to remain skeptical with regard to the Peace Agreement. What we are seeing is not the resolution of grievances, the coming together of two communities divided by sectarian hatreds, the righting of historic wrongs and the triumph of justice. Instead, we are seeing the renegotiation of bourgeois order very much on British terms, a bourgeois order that in many ways will rely on the perpetuation of those old hatreds and historic injustices. Bourgeois order in Northern Ireland broke down at the end of the 1960s and now, after a protracted war, it is being reconstituted. This is what the Peace Agreement is all about.

The Founding of the Northern Ireland State

In order to understand the Peace Agreement it is necessary to go back to the establishment of the Northern Ireland state in 1920-22. British policy towards the whole of Ireland was, at that time, to allow a limited form of self-government (Home Rule), but to resist any attempt at setting up a Republic. This provoked the “Black and Tan War” that gripped most of the country, with the Irish Republican Army carrying on a guerrilla campaign against the British. The situation was complicated by the existence in the northern industrial corner of the country of a Protestant minority that was closely allied to the British Conservative Party and was determined to resist being placed under even a Home Rule Parliament, let alone a Republic. The Northern Unionists wanted partition, the division of the country, so as to leave them in control of the six counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Londonderry. This would include a large Catholic minority, but the Unionists were confident that with British support they would be able to successfully dominate them.

While the British were unable to defeat the IRA militarily, they did achieve a decisive political victory, successfully splitting the republican movement. The British backed a conservative faction led by Michael Collins, Arthur Griffiths, and William Cosgrave and set up the Free State. This was a client regime that was armed and financed by the British in its war with the intransigent republicans. The Irish Civil War was a triumph for the British Empire with its enemies in Ireland comprehensively defeated.

What of the North? Here the Unionists established their own Home Rule Parliament at Stormont and set about consolidating a “Protestant State for Protestant people.” The substantial Catholic minority (a third of the population) was forcibly incorporated into the new state, but only after a bloody war. As Jonathan Bardon has explained:

The price in blood had been heavy: between July 1920 and July 1922 the death toll in the six counties was 557—303 Catholics, 172 Protestants and 82 members of the security forces. In Belfast, 236 people had been killed in the first months of 1922, more than in the widespread troubles in Germany in the same period. In Belfast there had been a vicious sectarian war…the statistics speak for themselves: Catholics formed only a quarter of the city’s population but had suffered 257 civilian deaths out of 416 in a two-year period. Catholic relief organizations estimated that in Belfast between 8,700 and 11,000 Catholics had been driven out of their jobs, that 23,000 Catholics had been forced out of their homes, and that about 500 Catholic-owned businesses had been destroyed.

One important but often neglected point worth noticing here is that at the same time they drove Catholic workers from the factories and shipyards, the Unionists also took the opportunity to clear out the left. There was a simultaneous purge of the so-called “rotten Prods,” the Protestant trade union militants and socialists who refused to support the Unionist Party. According to Austen Morgan, historian of the Protestant working class, some 1,800 Protestant workers were expelled from their workplaces, consisting of “almost the entire cadre of working class leaders in the industrial and political wings of the labour movement.”3

The intensity of the conflict in this period was as bad as the worst years of the current conflict, but it did not turn into a protracted war. Why? By the end of 1922 the Catholic community had been defeated (crucial was the defeat of the IRA in the south) and the Unionists were able to consolidate their rule over a sullen but cowed minority. They proceeded to establish Northern Ireland as an “Orange State” based on discrimination, gerrymandering and sectarianism. The new state equipped itself with an arsenal of police powers, the Special Powers Acts, intended to intimidate the minority and allow the prompt suppression of any opposition as soon as it showed itself. The paramilitary Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was backed up by a well-armed Protestant militia, the Special Constabulary or “B” Specials.4

While the Northern Ireland state preserved the forms of bourgeois democracy (this was enough to satisfy Conservative and Labour politicians in London), the content was radically different. No state where a third or more of its population deny it legitimacy can function as a normal bourgeois democracy. Northern Ireland was no exception. Instead, it was an “exceptional” state relying on special powers, sectarianism and electoral fraud for its survival. In practice, Northern Ireland was a one-party state whose raison d’être was the domination of the oppressed Catholic minority. What is remarkable is that this state survived without serious opposition for over forty-five years, weathering both the Great Depression and the Second World War. The reason for this is quite simple: while there was great bitterness and resentment among the Catholic minority, there was also a belief that nothing could be done to remedy their predicament. The scale of the defeat in 1920-22 and the consolidation of the Orange State enabled the Unionists to establish a hegemony over the minority. Their rule was regarded as unassailable. The Unionists had the support of a united Protestant community and the backing of the British state. The Catholics were a permanent minority, without any power, abandoned by the South to just make the best of their predicament. While IRA challenges to the Orange State in the early 1940s and late 1950s were viewed sympathetically by many Catholics, this was always a passive sympathy, because their efforts were regarded as brave but futile. All this was to change at the end of the 1960s when the bourgeois order established in 1920-22 was to be overthrown by popular revolt and armed insurrection.

From Civil Rights to Armed Insurrection

Two factors came together to produce the great Catholic working-class revolt of the summer of 1969; the inability of the Unionists to continue ruling in the old way and the refusal of the Catholic minority to continue being ruled that way. The Unionist government of Terence O’Neill recognized at the end of the 1960s that the Orange State would have to be reformed and the most visible sectarian abuses remedied. This was necessary if the province was to attract much-needed foreign investment. Moreover, the Labour government in London was urging modernization. Even the largely token reforms that O’Neill proposed were bitterly opposed by sections of the Protestant working class, threatened by rising unemployment, who saw any concessions to the Catholic minority as being at their expense. The Reverend Ian Paisley gave vicious sectarian expression to these fears.

The weakening of the Unionist position encouraged a Catholic belief that change was at last possible, that the Unionist leadership could be pressured into going further down the road of reform than they ever intended. The middle class civil rights movement, inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, was the response. A more radical voice was provided by the student organization People’s Democracy, very much part of the international student revolt. At this time the IRA was not a significant factor in the equation, having abandoned the armed struggle and with its membership in serious decline.

O’Neill found himself in an impossible position. His own supporters refused to allow him to make any meaningful concessions to the Catholics and demanded that the civil rights movement be repressed. At the same time, the Labour government was urging further reform and refusing to allow him to use the arsenal of repression available. The outcome was the worst of all worlds. The Catholic minority became outraged at the failure of reform to materialize, was involved in escalating conflict with the RUC and Protestant vigilantes, but was no longer cowed or intimidated. Indeed, the Catholic working class was moving center stage.

The result was the Catholic working-class revolt of August 1969. With the greatest reluctance, the Labour government deployed British troops on the streets of Derry and Belfast, ironically to prevent Protestant attacks on Catholic working-class areas. As far as Labour ministers were concerned the Unionists had failed to either carry out reform or maintain order. Now they would take on the task, aware that they were engaged in a competition for Catholic support with a resurgent physical force republicanism in the shape of the Provisional IRA. This organization had broken away from the “Official” IRA in December 1969, a response to RUC and Protestant attacks on Catholic areas.5

Almost certainly Labour’s program of reform was too little, too late. Only the abolition of Stormont would have conciliated the Catholics and this was too radical a step for Labour to contemplate. Even if Labour had remained in power it still seems certain that an IRA campaign would have taken place, but it is most unlikely that the war would have reached the level of intensity it achieved in 1971 and 1972. This was to be largely the work of the Conservative government that came to power in June 1970.


The new Heath government gave its full support to the Unionists, rejecting any further reform and setting about the restoration of law and order. Catholic working class areas were to be brought back under Stormont control. The turning point was the Falls Road curfew of July 1970, when troops sealed off and searched house-to-house some fifty streets over a thirty-four hour period. At the end of the operation five Catholics were dead, dozens injured and many homes had been vandalized and looted. The use of the army to restore Stormont rule effectively alienated the Catholic working class: having welcomed the soldiers as saviors the previous year, they now began to turn against them, with growing numbers of young men and women rallying to the Provisional IRA.6

Confronted with a deteriorating security situation, the British stumbled into the half-hearted application of a counter-insurgency strategy. It was not possible to implement the full range of repressive measures that were routinely used in dealing with unrest and rebellion in the colonies. The Catholics were white, Northern Ireland was ostensibly part of the United Kingdom, and events unfolded in front of the world media. The result was that the army not only failed to defeat the IRA, but was directly responsible for increasing their support. Every young man roughed up, every home wrecked, every woman insulted, and every child scared was a propaganda success for the IRA. Moreover when any attempt was made to really get tough, it inevitably backfired.

The introduction of internment without trial in August 1971 was ostensibly a response to the increasing level of violence in the province, but was in fact a capitulation to Unionist pressure. In the six months up to its introduction, thirty-four people had been killed, while in the rest of the year another 140 people were to be killed! Far from containing the conflict, internment was responsible for it escalating out of control. This disaster was compounded the following year by the “Bloody Sunday” massacre (January 30, 1972), when British paratroopers shot dead fourteen unarmed people taking part in a demonstration against internment in Derry.7

These events provided the IRA with enough popular support to sustain them through a protracted war. Somewhat belatedly the British realized this and at last, in March 1972, they abolished Stormont and introduced direct rule from London. The search was now on for a new order in Northern Ireland.


From an attempt to militarily defeat the IRA with a view to restoring the old order, the British moved to a policy of containment while trying to construct a new order. The Heath government followed up the abolition of Stormont with secret talks with the IRA leadership and various concessions, including political status for IRA prisoners. These talks failed to produce a settlement. With the IRA still insisting on a British withdrawal, the British decided to build up moderate opposition to the IRA within the Catholic community. This took the shape of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) led by Gerry Fitt and John Hume. One problem critics of the IRA have is that the British have only become serious about reform in response to violence, and have only ever given moderate nationalists the time of day in order to try to undermine support for republicanism. No British government would bother talking to John Hume if it were not for the IRA. This is an inescapable fact.

The first attempt at reconstituting the bourgeois order involved the establishment of a coalition power-sharing executive bringing together moderate Unionists, led by Brian Faulkner and the SDLP. This involved a historic recognition by the British that the Catholics could not be forcibly returned to their subordinate position. Protestant hostility was too strong, however, and in May 1974 a successful general strike brought the power-sharing executive down and a return to direct rule. By now the Heath government had been replaced in office by a new Labour government.8

The 1974-79 Labour government presided over important changes in security policy in Northern Ireland. The army’s counter-insurgency strategy was abandoned in favor of a police-led internal security strategy that owed more to the European experience against the Red Army Faction in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy than it did to the colonial experience. Police primacy, criminalization, normalization, Ulsterization; these were the watchwords of a strategy that successfully contained the IRA and reduced the level of violence. Nevertheless, the IRA’s popular support was such that it was able to survive, whereas the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades had both been destroyed. But while they were still able to carry out the occasional “spectacular” operation, the IRA could not inflict a level of attrition on the British great enough to compromise their position in Northern Ireland. By the end of the 1970s more British soldiers were killed in accidents than were killed by the IRA.9

By 1979 the Labour government faced two serious problems in Northern Ireland. First of all, IRA prisoners responded to the ending of political status by protests that began with the dirty protests and were to culminate in all-out hunger strikes. If Labour had been re-elected in 1979 then there is every likelihood that they would have made concessions to avoid the hunger strikes. The other problem was to play an important part in bringing them down. The government covered up and condoned the beating of IRA suspects to extract confessions until the scandal became so glaring in Northern Ireland that Gerry Fitt, hitherto a staunch Labour supporter, voted against them in a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. Fitt brought the Labour government down in protest against this abuse, a shameful way for any government to fall, but this has conveniently been written out of the record.10 Despite these problems, the successful containment of the IRA had created the conditions for fresh political initiatives with a very real prospect of the conflict coming to an end by the mid-1980s. This was predicated on a republican recognition that military victory was impossible.

hatcher and After

What prevented this was the election of the Thatcher government in May 1979 and her handling of the IRA hunger strikes. Thatcher was determined to establish her reputation as a strong political leader by standing up to the IRA, regardless of the consequences in Northern Ireland. The subsequent death of ten hunger strikers in the summer of 1981 was as big a political disaster for the British as Bloody Sunday had been nearly ten years earlier. It led to a dramatic increase in support for republicanism, both north and south of the border, enabled Sinn Fein to make an electoral breakthrough, and in retrospect can be seen as sustaining the IRA through another decade of war. As the historian Joseph Lee has put it, Thatcher’s handling of this crisis was “inept to the point of criminality.”11 This, together with the successful smuggling into the country of some 150 tons of weapons and explosives from Libya in 1985-86, convinced elements within the IRA that victory was in sight.

On the British side, the dramatic increase in support for Sinn Fein caused serious worries and once again led to measures intended to bolster support for the SDLP. The outcome was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985 that completely alienated the Unionists and was only imposed on a reluctant Thatcher with great difficulty. The Agreement acknowledged the interest of the Irish government in Northern Ireland’s affairs and effectively initiated what has since become known as the “Peace Process.” On the military front, even with their new weaponry, the IRA failed to increase the British rate of attrition. Indeed during the whole of the 1980s, they killed fewer British soldiers than they had in 1972! Moreover, the British were becoming more effective in operations against the IRA. Thatcher still favored a military victory, and, while she never got her way as far as the overall picture was concerned, she was able to ensure that her favorite soldiers, the Special Air Service, were given a free hand. SAS shoot-to-kill methods continually raised tension in the province when official policy was to dampen it down. The most dramatic instance of this was the shooting of three unarmed IRA volunteers in broad daylight in Gibraltar in March 1988.12

With the downfall of Thatcher, the new Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, effectively ended SAS involvement in Northern Ireland. He made it absolutely clear that a negotiated settlement involving Sinn Fein was on the agenda. By now this was very much what the republican leadership was after. The IRA had failed to defeat the British after twenty-five years of war and the Catholic community was facing increasing sectarian attacks by Protestant paramilitaries. Gerry Adams and his comrades were determined to end the conflict, but while they had tacitly abandoned the objective of a united Ireland, they needed significant concessions for the Catholic community if they were to avoid a serious split in the republican movement. On September 1, 1994, the first ceasefire went into effect. The Peace Process The negotiations that followed were concerned with the reconstitution of bourgeois order. The old order that was imposed on the Catholic community after the bloody conflict of 1920-22 had irretrievably broken down. The British failure to defeat the IRA made it clear that Stormont rule could not be restored. The Catholics could not be made to accept a return to Protestant domination. While Paisley’s Democratic Unionists still demand this (which would bring the inevitable renewal of the war), the largest Unionist party, David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists, have reluctantly, very reluctantly, come to accept that it is no longer possible. The fact is that for many Unionists any settlement that does not embody their domination over the Catholic minority is a “sell-out” and a “betrayal.” It was this that accounted for the protracted nature of the Peace Process and for the painfully slow rate of progress. In the end, however, they have been pressured into acceptance of the Peace Agreement. This guarantees the Protestant majority their British citizenship, while at the same time protecting the Catholic minority against their domination.

For Sinn Fein, the Agreement represents, in the words of the Economist only “the palest shadow of once non-negotiable republican demands.”13 Its acceptance is a recognition that, while the British have not been able to destroy the IRA, they have been able to deny it victory. The military struggle has failed and Irish republicanism is embracing the constitutional road. Only a die-hard rump has, so far, refused to accept this.

What the Peace Agreement does not address, however, is the poverty, unemployment, and low wages that are the lot of many working-class Protestants and Catholics. Even today, after over twenty years of direct rule, discrimination against Catholics is still rife, with the Catholic rate of unemployment twice that of Protestants. These issues, the issues of social justice, will be forgotten or played down as the Sinn Fein leaders embark on careers as conventional politicians. What the British government has achieved in Northern Ireland is the reconstitution of bourgeois order, not in the context of the British Empire as in 1920-22, but in the context of the European Union. Constitutional arrangements have had to be renegotiated so that capitalist exploitation can continue without the obstacles and distractions occasioned by war. While the end of the war is to be welcomed, the nature of the peace is to be deplored.


  1. Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry, The Politics of Antagonism, London: The Athlone Press 1993, pp. 8-22.
  2. Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press 1992, p. 494.
  3. Austen Morgan, Labour and Partition: The Belfast Working Class, London: Pluto Press 1991, pp. 261-262.
  4. See Michael Farrell, Northern Ireland: The Orange State, London; Pluto Press 1980.
  5. The best historical study of Irish Republicanism is Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion, London: Hutchinson 1997. But see also for the IRA, Peter Taylor, Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein, London: Bloomsbury 1997.
  6. Paddy Devlin, Straight Left, Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1994, p. 134.
  7. On Bloody Sunday see Eamon McCann, Bloody Sunday in Derry, Dingle: Brandon 1992.
  8. For the UWC general strike see Robert Fisk, The Point of No Return, London: Heinemann 1975.
  9. For the development of British security policy see my “British Security Policy in Northern Ireland,” Race and Class 37, 1 July-September 1995.
  10. See my “Ulster and the downfall of the Labour government 1974-79,” Race and Class 33, 2 October-December 1991.
  11. Joseph Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press 1989, p. 454.
  12. For the SAS in Northern Ireland see my Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture, London: Pluto 1997.
  13. The Economist April 18-24 1998, p. 23.
1998, Volume 50, Issue 02 (June)
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