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Holy War

In Northern Ireland many well-informed people will tell you that it is an illusion to believe that the struggle is a religious one. Unionists, who are almost all Protestants, will assure you that their opponents, who are almost all Catholics, are the objects of distrust not because of their faith, but because of their political allegiance, which has generally gone, not to the British Crown and to what Unionists like to call the Constitution of Northern Ireland, but to the idea of an Irish nation. Surprisingly, some high Catholic ecclesiastics are in general agreement with this view: the real trouble, they think, is not between Protestant and Catholic as such, but between Unionist and Nationalist; it just so happens that the Catholics tend or have tended to be Nationalists; they are oppressed not for their faith but for their politics.

These are the positions of Conservatives, both Protestant and Catholic. But on the Left there prevails an equal conviction of the essential irrelevance of the sectarian factor. The issue is “only apparently” a religious one: it is basically a distorted form of class war. Landlords and industrialists have deliberately promoted religious strife in their own economic interest. Sections of the working class have become dupes of this propaganda. Protestant workers have been encouraged to look to their economic exploiters as their political and religious leaders. And, in a smaller way, Catholic workers have been encouraged to look to other exploiters—the weak but not quite insignificant Catholic bourgeoisie—as their protectors against an oppression that they mistakenly see as principally sectarian in character.

In fact—the argument runs—the bourgeoisie and land-owning classes are the sole beneficiaries of the religious antagonism, and the working classes are the dupes of the contrasting emblems behind which they march in July and August. The whole religious issue, I was informed by a student activist in Queen’s University, Belfast, last November, “is just a red herring.”

Certainly what is going on is not a simple case of religious war: there has probably never been a simple case of religious war. Ulster Protestants do not dislike Catholics simply because of their submission to the Pope and their devotion to the Virgin Mary. They also dislike them for political reasons. But the politics and the theology are inseparably intertwined. The Nationalists, after all, believe in an Irish nation which should be expressed in an all-Ireland state, which would have a Catholic majority. And the Nationalists are almost all Catholics. Protestants/ Unionists believe that the effect of the fulfillment of Catholic/Nationalist aspirations would place them under Catholic domination. This view was crisply expressed in the nineteenth-century Unionist slogan: Home Rule means Rome Rule. It was a slogan of immense power because it asserted in memorable words what to most Ulster Protestants seemed an unanswerable reason for opposing the nationalist demand.

Thus the dichotomy which some respectable conservative thinkers, both Protestant and Catholic, seek to establish between the “political” and “religious” issues is artificial, and cannot account for the treatment of Catholics/ Nationalists by Protestants/Unionists in Northern Ireland. Such an invention obviously must answer a need. For some laymen I think the need is for an image (of the Province, of oneself) which will be, if not altogether respectable, at least modern: “We are not really living in the Middle Ages, So this is not a religious war; it is political. Twentieth century!”

For some Churchmen, I think the dichotomy may be more important. For all of them it helps to exculpate “religion” generally, in a situation for which “religion” seems on the face of it to bear some share of the blame. It enables some among the Protestant clergy to forget the generations during which the Ulster Protestant mind was formed by the sacred oratory of men like Roaring Hanna and many other spiritual ancestors of Ian Paisley: the same men who both systematically inflamed hatred of Papists, and supplied theological backing for the political resistance to nationalist demands. And it helps some Catholic clergy to leave out of consideration how much credibility the use of the influence of the Catholic hierarchy in the Republic of Ireland may have added to the old slogan about “Rome Rule.” For bishops as well as for generals, “politics” and “the politicians” often supply useful scapegoats.

Class analysis of the origins and structure of religious antagonisms in Northern Ireland is another matter. It is certain that the ruling classes, and especially the landlord class, did in the past exploit and inflame religious bigotry—most directly, Protestant bigotry. The critical period was in the Twenties and Thirties of the last century. The struggle for Catholic Emancipation in what was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Tory resistance to that measure, revived the apprehension about Popery. The Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829, but it was not until after the Reform Act of 1832, with its erosion of landlord power and threat of further erosion, that the landed aristocracy threw its collective weight behind an anti-Papist movement—the Orange Order—which had originally drawn its strength from small Protestant farmers.1

At a great meeting at Hillsborough in County Down in 1834 the leaders of the Ulster aristocracy, led by the Marquess of Donegal and Londonderry, heard the great Presbyterian orator, Henry Cooke, proclaim the unity of Protestants in a common cause. The cause included the repeal of both Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Act. Cooke was successful in driving out the “Arian” radicals from the Presbyterian church, and in securing that the conservative interests which had always dominated the Church of Ireland (Anglican) should henceforth dominate also the Presbyterians and Ulster Protestantism in general. Cooke was not himself an Orangeman, but he is rightly regarded as a principal architect of the victory of Orangeism.2

Henceforward, and up to our own time, the Orange Order and its associated institutions have formed a popular politico-religious movement, under aristocratic and business leadership. This movement, or condition, has dominated the life of Eastern Ulster—what is now Northern Ireland—for more than a hundred years. From 1912 on, it prevented the Home Rule Bill from being extended to what is now Northern Ireland; and it has provided, through the Unionist Party, the parliamentary majority and the government of Northern Ireland for an unbroken period of almost fifty years, since 1920—the year in which King George V solemnly opened the Parliament of Northern Ireland at Stormont near Belfast. The United Kingdom Parliament retained control of finance, foreign affairs, defense, and other matters—and also, ultimately, the power to abolish the subordinate Parliament which it had created. But in local government, including police, Stormont had the power over the six counties of Northern Ireland. The first Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, spoke of Stormont as “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.” Catholics—a permanent minority—regarded themselves as kidnapped into a condition of second-class citizens. The Irish Free State (later the Republic) denied the democratic legitimacy of the partition of the island.

Politically, economically, and socially the most obvious beneficiary of this history has been the landowning aristocracy. In the rest of Ireland that class has disappeared from the scene as a result of the successful nineteenth-century agrarian agitation of the Land League. But Protestant Ulster remained so loyal, not only to the Crown and the Reformation, but also to the landlord class, that, at the height of the agrarian agitation in 1880, Orange laborers were imported from Ulster to district Mayo under British armed guard to harvest the crops of Captain Boycott, who had been ostracized by anti-landlord forces. 3 Almost all the Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland so far have been drawn from the landlord class: all have been closely associated with that class and have had its support, including the current Prime Minister, Francis Chichester-Clark, descendant of an English seventeenth-century Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Industrial employers also benefited from aristocratic rule, for the sharp religious divisions among the working class retarded the trade union movement. With a few notable exceptions they have supported the Unionist Party and its aristocratic leaders, and have contributed to the Orange Order. The upper classes in England also played an important part in the development of sectarian hate in Ulster. From the time when the Liberal Party declared for Home Rule, in 1886, up to 1914, the Tories systematically exploited Protestant bigotry in Ulster. Rudyard Kipling, the bard of imperialism, deliberately struck this note in the great Home Rule crisis just before the First World War.

We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome
The terror, threats and dread
In market, hearth and field—
We know when all is said
We perish if we yield.

Yet the class-interpretation of the religious antagonism can be, and often is, over-simplified. In modern times the ruling classes have exploited and exacerbated this antagonism, but they did not create it: it exists independently of them. Indeed when, alarmed by its excesses, important sections of the ruling class have tried to cool down these feelings, they have been defeated by them, as was the case with Captain O’Neill, the previous Prime Minister, who tried to give Northern Ireland a more liberal image, favored a relatively conciliatory approach to Catholics, and fell because of this. No analysis of the Northern Ireland situation which is content to dismiss the religious issues as “a red herring” is of any value as analysis, although it may have its uses in political controversy.

Basically, religious affiliation was—and is—socially, economically, and politically significant, for it distinguishes, with very few exceptions, the natives and their children from the seventeenth-century settlers and their children. The British Crown, in the post-Reformation period, naturally favored the settlement of loyal Protestants,4 and the dispossession of natives, whose support of the Counter-Reformation was necessarily a form of rebellion: politics and religion were inseparable from the start.

The Protestant settlers—Scottish and English—were the gainers, the Catholic natives the losers: antagonistic collective interests and loyalties were established immediately. The natives were dispossessed, but not exterminated nor assimilated nor converted to Protestantism. Their Catholicism became the badge of their identity and of their defiance. After the destruction of the Gaelic social order by the end of the seventeenth century and the substitution of English for the Gaelic language—a process completed by the mid-nineteenth century in most of the country—the Catholic Church became almost the sole form of the social cohesion of the native people.

The area of Protestant settlement—as distinct from ascendancy or domination—never spread out effectively beyond that Northeastern corner of Ireland which is closest to Scotland, where most of the settlers came from. The Ulster Protestants held a bridgehead, were aware of a menace, cherished the military virtues: they came, in many ways, to resemble the Afrikaaners in their laager. Twice during the seventeenth-century wars native revolt seemed near to success. The victory of William of Orange in 1690 ended that period of turmoil and danger, gave the settlers security of possession, and led to the codification of Protestant/settler domination in a carefully institutionalized caste-system: the Penal Laws, applicable throughout Ireland. These resembled various “white supremacy” codes quite closely, except that the victims of the codes could “pass” by abjuring their religion. Some did, and merged into the population of settler origin: the bulk of the natives remained Catholic.

  1. 1

    According to the official Orange historian, R.M. Sibbett, the members of the first Orange Lodge at Loughgall, County Armagh in 1795, “almost all…belonged to the humblest classes…weavers and small farmers. The gentry stood aloof.” (A History of Orangism in Ireland and Throughout the Empire, Belfast.) Referring to the subsequent “conversion” of the gentry, Sibbett reflects that “Time and enlightenment produced wonderful effects.”

  2. 2

    See a useful recent work, Holy War in Belfast, by Andrew Boyd (Anvil Books, Tralee Ireland; paperback). In the French Revolutionary period many radical Presbyterians made common cause with Catholics in Wolfe Tone’s movement of the United Irishmen and in the rebellion of 1798. The actual course of the rebellion included anti-Protestant atrocities by Catholic insurgents in the South. Its thorough suppression and the subsequent general reaction disrupted this always precarious alliance. Governmental concessions to Presbyterians and the work of Cooke completed the process of bringing the Presbyterian body into the camp of conservative Protestant loyalism—the Orange system.

  3. 3

    This inadvertently publicized the effectiveness of the practice of ostracism and conferred a curious kind of immortality on Captain Boycott’s name.

  4. 4

    Edmund Spenser, himself a settler, noted Machiavelli’s recommendation of the introduction of settlers as the best means of securing possession of a conquered province (View of the State of Ireland).

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