Violence in Ireland: Another Algeria?

The people have risen,” according to Miss Bernadette Devlin.

Polarization between Catholics and Protestants is complete,” according to Mr. Tom Connaty, Chairman of the (Catholic) Central Citizens’ Defense Committee in Belfast.

The people” of whom Miss Devlin speaks are in fact the half-million Catholics of Northern Ireland. The Protestants, one million people, are not part of “the people” in the sense in which the various leaders, spokesmen, and pamphlets of the present insurrectionary movement are now actually using the term “the people.”

There has been a change here. Two or three years ago, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland were actively—not just formally—discouraging the trend toward sectarian conflict between Protestant and Catholic. So was the Irish Republican Army—a left-oriented organization at that time. Then in vogue were various forms of a general theory that the civil rights conflicts and parallel militant activity on nonsectarian social issues would raise the level of consciousness of the working class (thought of as including Protestants and Catholics) and would eventually precipitate a genuine class war.

Vestiges of this concept remain in the language of the best known spokesmen—no longer really the leaders—of the Civil Rights successor movements when they address international audiences. But in reality no one any longer thinks in terms of revolutionary unity, of the solidarity of Protestant and Catholic workers. More and more openly, the real revolutionary leaders based in the Catholic ghettos acknowledge that the Protestant working class is a part of the enemy: they are not seen as Irish; they are settlers, colons.

Those who hold this view most plainly are the Provisional IRA: those who broke with the official leadership of the IRA in January, 1970, on the ground that that leadership was too Marxist, too theoretical, incompetent, insufficiently military, and insufficiently grounded in traditional Irish Republicanism. One of the ways in which the official leadership had been too theoretical was in its scrupulous care to avoid sectarian conflict, in conditions where sectarian conflict formed such a conspicuous part of the environment. The Provisionals accepted this fact of life from the beginning, and prospered accordingly in the Catholic ghettos. And the IRA “Officials,” where they survived, did so by imitating the Provisionals.

The reality of a war of Catholics (natives) against Protestants (settlers) continues to be formally denied, but with less and less conviction. The socialist convictions or professions of so many of the revolutionary or militant intellectuals (including some of the more intellectual of the Provisionals) make a formally anti-sectarian position obligatory. More important, because affecting a deeper emotional level, is the Irish Republican tradition.

The founders of the Irish Republican tradition were Protestants, many of its earliest martyrs were Ulster Protestants. The IRA of today—both sections—were brought up on the writings and lives of these eighteenth-century men and women. But the militant Republicans now pursue an Irish national concept which—so far as any mass identification is concerned—has become a Catholic affair. And it …

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Letters

Trouble in Ireland December 30, 1971