The six most north-easterly counties of the Irish mainland form a colony 16 miles from the coast of the Mother Country. A third of its population owe it neither historical, nor religious, nor political allegiance. The industry of these six counties has been in decline for over a decade. Its political universe has been subject to an ideological retardation dating back centuries. ‘The truth about the Unionist state is that it is founded upon negations.’footnote1

The recent General Election was called in a vain attempt to solve at the polls a series of problems which were in fact intractable within the existing constitutional framework. The results at the parliamentary level was predictably inconclusive; outside parliament it demonstrated the growing support on the one hand for extreme right-wing Protestantism, and on the other for the radical socialist wing of the Civil Rights movement.

In the 16th century, communal land made up the greater proportion of the land in Ireland. For the next 100 years, Ireland suffered a continual pillage at the hands of the overlord power of England. Where resistance to colonial terrorism was strongest, in the north-east, James I—in despair at the failure of the Irish Reformation—offered the province of Ulster to the English mercantile class on the condition that they established there a non-Catholic ‘plantation’ of yeoman farmers, townsmen, artisans and traders. The material they used was Scottish and Presbyterian.

The Southern provinces of Leinster, Munster and Connacht meanwhile remained ruthlessly exploited occupied territories. The stages of exploitation are numerous. The first wave of expropriations dates from Cromwell’s time; the second from the reign of William of Orange, when he defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne; in gratitude William allocated vast estates to adventurers in his following, while safeguarding the Protestant landowning ascendancy in Ulster.

The Battle of the Boyne inflicted on the South a land system which prevented agricultural competition with both England and the North. Capital could be neither accumulated nor invested. No internal market was possible, and thus no middle class appeared. In Ulster it had been present since the plantations. Like its counterpart in England it was interested in a removal of economic restrictions and in gaining for its native industries a measure of protection. Throughout the remainder of Ireland power rested in the hands of a miniscule group of landowners, performing no economic functions and with no claim to the allegiance of the peasantry. It had to rely for its dominance on the support of an English army maintained through Dublin by a huge and corrupt bureaucracy. Even so, Irish agriculture potentially threatened England’s confinement of Ireland to a debtor role, with a heavy annual tax burden. The absurdity of this situation led the Ulster middle class to seek an alliance with the more progressive Anglo-Irish landlords; this produced the Irish Volunteers, who gained from England the concession of partial legislative autonomy in ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ of 1782. As leader of this parliament, Grattan claimed freedom for propertyowners of all religions—‘The Irish protestant could never be free until the Irish catholic ceased to be a slave’—while simultaneously seeing that if this freedom was achieved the armed support needed to maintain the land system would disappear. The introduction of English industrial technology managed to obscure this contradiction for some 10 years. Eventually, however, it become increasingly obvious to the more radical members of the Ulster middle class that Grattan’s provisions were utterly inadequate.

The increasing parliamentary impotence of the professional strata of the middle class led to their recruitment, under Wolfe Tone, into a revolutionary secret society, the United Irishmen, probably the most progressive bourgeois force ever to exist on these islands. Tone conceived of himself and his movement as in essentially the same situation as the French revolutionaries of 1789.

Tone managed to achieve the support of elements of the Catholic peasant masses, especially in the North. In areas where sectarian conflict existed least he gained some success amongst the propertyless Protestants. But by 1798, as the movement got off the ground in the countryside, its leadership had already been decimated by internal betrayal and a loss of nerve. General Lake’s reign of terror, in which the Orange Order was used directly by the State for the first time, eliminated it altogether. The movement’s potentiality provided the political excuse for the Act of Union in 1801; in fact it was the landowner’s refusal in the Irish puppet parliament to surrender every vestige of autonomy to England that precipitated this coup. Irish industry’s inability to keep up with the more advanced innovations of the industrial revolution, which demanded abundant supplies of coal, had in any event weakened its capacity to resist English pressure. Only linen production in the north was no threat to England and survived, later providing a financial basis for industrial development in Belfast. The 19th century saw the South relegated to the status of a supply-area of cheap food and labour for Britain. Both Anglo-Irish landowners and the nascent urban middle class had been economically defeated.