One hundred years of the Orange State

30 April 2021

"Loyalists at the burned out Catholic parochial house, Lisburn 1920"

The official centenary of the state in the north of Ireland is quite a downbeat affair writes Liam McQuade. There are a few online videos of Ulster-Scots dancing and a half-hearted Twitter account. Some patriotic loyalists did try to have re-enactments of the riots and pogroms that their great-grandparents were involved in almost one hundred years ago to the week, but they were dismally half-hearted affairs. Not even a single Catholic family was driven out of its home. Its 50th anniversary had a technology themed Ulster ‘71 festival celebrating the region’s industrial strength and military prowess but it’s tough to have a jubilee when half a state’s population feel no affinity to it.


James Craig, the state’s first prime minister, made no bones about its raison d'être. He told a 1921 audience at a meeting that it would have more than twice as many Protestants as it would Catholics. For this the unionist leadership were willing to hand over the other three counties of the province of Ulster. He may have been a neo-fascist demagogue but at least he told the truth.


Why did the Protestant / Catholic thing matter?

The Protestant population in the six counties were originally Scottish and English tenant farmers settled there as part of a pacification programme during the 17thcentury conquest of Ireland. Unlike the rest of the country, which was dominated by large landlords, the northern counties experienced quite significant capital accumulation and the development of textile and shipping industries. The Act of Union which followed the failed 1798 rising gave these industries to a rapidly growing British imperial market.


Belfast expanded enormously as a result. Its population increased from 20 000 in 1801 to 350 000 in 1901. Shipbuilding, engineering and textile companies sucked in labour from the countryside, but from the earliest days these industries were organised on sectarian lines. Skilled, relatively well-paid work went to Protestants. Catholics dominated low-skilled, casual jobs. The class-conscious unionist employers fraternised with their workers in the Orange Order, an organisation originally established to suppress the 1798 rising which had been led by a vanguard of radical democratic Protestants inspired by the French Revolution. It was a very simple strategy of which Ramsay MacDonald said:

“In Belfast you get labour conditions the like of which you get in no other town.... It is maintained by an exceedingly simple device.... Whenever there is an attempt to root out sweating in Belfast the Orange big drum is beaten.”

The workforce in the city’s largest employer, Harland and Wolff, had 7.6% of Catholics in 1911, a place in which they were a quarter of the population. They were driven out of their jobs about a year before the state’s creation along with the “rotten Prods”, Protestants who were socialists or considered to be insufficiently loyalist. This was one of a series of workplace expulsions and pogroms which would leave over 500 people dead in the next two years, the majority of whom were Catholic.

Despite having a large, well-organised working class employed in heavy industry it was vaccinated against the revolutionary movement rolling across Europe by the Orange ideology. It identified Bolshevism and the democratic will of the rest of Ireland’s population as its main enemies.

An armed camp

Irish Republicanism didn’t have a strategy for the north during the War of Independence other than pinprick attacks on the police and British troops. In any case they were heavily outgunned. Months before the start of the 1914 war loyalists had smuggled in large quantities of weapons from Germany and begun drilling paramilitary organisations similar to the proto-fascist groups in post-war Germany. These were supplemented by a 16 000 strong Special Constabulary established as a mass counter-revolutionary force of Protestant workers and farmers led by local bourgeois notables. On top of this there were 20 000 Ulster Volunteer Force members who were mostly military veterans.


When the state was created its political leadership made no secret of the fact that they thought its reluctant Catholic citizens who preferred a united Ireland must be treated as hostile aliens. Brooke, a prime minister, said “I have not a Roman Catholic about my own place” and his colleague Andrews, the labour minister, said that the single Catholic in his department was recruited by mistake and was only temporary.


That dispensation collapsed in 1972 with the fall of the Stormont parliament caused by the mass radical movement on the streets of the six counties. Years of violence followed which largely ended with the Good Friday Agreement.


Referendum? No chance

While having the status of a sacred cow in the Labour Party the Agreement waslargely the IRA’s formal acknowledgement of surrender and Sinn Fein’s declaration of willingness to be the DUP’s junior coalition partner. The trade-off was that both groups got access to large quantities of cash, jobs and patronage to be awarded on an explicitly sectarian basis.

Craig’s demographic prediction turned out to be wrong. The 2021 census is expected to show a slight Catholic majority in the six counties, a fact which when combined with Brexit has caused speculation about a united Ireland in the nearishfuture brought about through a referendum.


We can say with some confidence that this is not going to happen. The DUP, southern Irish and British governments are dead against it and you can’t have a referendum unless governments organise it. Anyway the Dublin government is even more hostile to it than the Tories.


It’s not the role of socialists to support compromise with reactionary, sectarian loyalism, nor is it our role to advocate a united Ireland on the basis of counting how many Catholics there are in the six counties. Our role is to hasten the end of partition and the northern state by building opposition to Irish capitalism and British imperialism in the Irish and British working class.