The INLA, PUP,and Marxism in Northern Ireland – Can Marxism beat Sectarianism? Part 2 – Loyalism, Two Nations, and Breaking the Chains of Atavism

The amount of material on loyalist culture is abysmal. This is not a culture that is especially adored anywhere, with the possible exception of Scotland and Toronto, Canada. There was never a massive diaspora to America, which in turn would have laid the groundwork for an entire culture of expats (complete with music, film, novels, and generations of Americans far removed from Ulster yet still claiming to be Ulster Scot). The Ulster Scots are generally one step removed from hillbillies in the United States, with the the more respectable members of the diaspora largely confined to the UK and Canada. One can still see Canadian flags being tossed about on July 12th Parades in Belfast..

Of course, this is mostly due to the fact that the loyalist has stayed put. They are the working class of Northern Ireland, and as opposed to the forced diaspora of the Famine, the North was sufficiently industrialized to sustain itself and integrate itself with the rest of Europe’s trade (the fact that the North’s loyalty was guaranteed, as opposed to Western Ireland, certainly aided things as well). But most importantly, no one talks of the “overseas Belfast Loyalist community” anymore than they would talk of Lancashire, or Manchester, or Newcastle’s “overseas community”. These were/are local industrial hubs, and at least until the Thatcher years, they were successful.

Belfast also followed industrial-city suit by attracting a large, “red” working force. Unions were the norm here; the shipping yards which formed the backbone of Belfast’s industry, and which employed a vast quantity of loyalist men, were unionized. These were not open unions however; following partition, it became very difficult for a Catholic to find work within union jobs. This did not stop a nascent left-wing from growing however, and a non-sectarian Communist group came into being in Belfast during the 30s. Numbers were limited, although like many Northern British working class cities “Communism” wasn’t equated with devil worship.

The arrival of the civil rights movement changed the attitudes of many loyalists, who felt that their way of life was being threatened by outside aliens like the specters of the “IRA” (who as noted in the previous post had nothing to do with the civil rights group, NICRA). The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the amalgam of two pre-Troubles parties, was quickly viewed as just another Irish nationalist group. Many loyalists became bitterly disillusioned, not only by the supposed attacks against their community by the “IRA”, but were beginning to feel sold out by mainstream political parties as well. Ian Paisley’s ultra-right wing Democratic Unionist Party may have had a fundamentalist Protestant at the helm, but at least they were offering a fighting chance against the depredations of both the Irish “terror” and mainstream Unionism.

Socialist/Marxist Loyalism remained alive however, as best exemplified by David Trimble throughout the early 70s. Trimble, a member of the loyalist paramilitary UVF and later founder of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), maintained an interesting outlook; as much as the republicans had done with their Marxism (which they took seriously and were certainly not dilettantes), and confined that Marxism within the prism of republicanism, loyalist Marxism could do the same – a Marxism for loyalists, for the working class of Northern Ireland (which of course predated the economic downfall of most of the great industrial hubs of the UK in the 80s to follow, and with which would have a major engagement during the dark days of Thatcherism and the de-industrializing process of the 80s).

Central to the initial concept for loyalist Marxism was the “Two Nations” manifesto, jointly arrived upon by Northern loyalist Marxists and a strange southern entity called the British Irish Communist Organization, another loyalist communist group strangely formed and administered by Irish in the Republic. The general notions were that a) Ulster loyalists constitute their ethnicity, their own “nation” rather than Britons who were just “living across the sea”, and that b) the two nations (Irish and Ulster Loyalist) had a right to coexist without supremacy/hegemony of any kind. What this translated as was an acceptance that both Ulster loyalist Marxism could exist with republican Marxism, WITHOUT THE TWO NECESSARILY DEPENDENT ON ONE ANOTHER OR EVEN IN CONTACT WITH ONE ANOTHER. The transnational aspect of Marxism was gone, although not to the degree of Stalinism wherein “communism in one country” was given precedence over another.

It was a novel idea which was propagated during the 1974 Ulster Shop Steward strike, which brought an end to the very short-lived experiment in power sharing. It was also a bloody period, in which 39 died, mostly during clashes with Ulster paramilitary groups.

Which brings me to the intransigence of paramilitary backed leftist/Marxist groups, as well as Marxism in hardline sectarian communities in general. It is folly to believe that you can have two Marxist groups, of roughly the community (Trotskyite, Leninist, post colonial, etc) operating at the same time, in some kind of vacuum, in which the OTHER group with identical views are also operating at the same time/place but without any kind of communication with the other. I believe that that is the central flaw of the Two Nations concept, as it pertains to the day-to-day functioning of a purportedly universally appealing agenda. It is divisional, and while it addresses the immediate problems of sectarian communities that are forced to live with each other during emergency periods, it is not a long term solution – and the sectarianism of Northern Ireland is long term. “The Troubles”, the most recent spasm of violence that wracked the area for thirty years, is only the latest manifestation of a long gestating problem, and longer term solutions are needed.

Can Marxism rise above sectarianism? Yes, I believe it can – evidence of this exists in abundance with certain anarchist communities in the Middle East, and I have seen how non-state Marxist groups can cooperate with each other in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon. Although Northern Ireland is falling back in love with sectarianism, although segregation has become embedded in cities such as Belfast (where if you moves into a given neighborhood, it’s like you’ve made a personal, political commitment to whichever sectarian group runs the neighborhood), I have also seen the growing popularity of hard-left groups such as the SWP and People Before Profit – an electoral group which has won seats in Stormont, in both neutral and republican ridings. And I’ve seen an entire, newly-educated group of young people who are both driven to improve their communities as well as reach out to the other. Sectarianism isn’t impossible.

 

 

 

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