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Now, I may have given you the impression with what I've said so far that I am a supporter of Sinn Fein and of the aims it shared with the IRA. It happens that for fifteen years, from 1972 to 1987, I was living in Northern Ireland, involved in politics and deeply opposed to the IRA. I was a member of a small political grouping called the British and Irish Communist Organisation. Despite the name the group was independent of any other left wing tendency and very free-thinking. We had one thing in common with the IRA. Both of us saw Northern Ireland, with its fake Parliament wholly dependent on Westminster, as a perverse political entity. But where the Provos wanted to see Northern Ireland fully integrated into the political structure (albeit a reformed political structure) of the Republic of Ireland, we wanted to see it fully integrated into the political structure of the United Kingdom.

I'm an Ulster Protestant and there may have been an element of 'Unionist' or British national sentiment in my own feelings on the matter, but that was certainly not any part of the motivation of most of my comrades, in particular of those who had brought the British and Irish Communist organisation into existence and done most of its thinking. Most members came from a Catholic background, many of them from the Republic; some had been members of the IRA or INLA and some had served time in prison. One of our members - Manus O'Riordan - was the son of Michael O'Riordan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, who used his connections with the IRA to supply explosives and know-how to the African National Congress for one of their most spectacular operations - the explosion of an oil refinery at Sasolburg in 1980. (2) Readers may remember that Gerry Adams formed part of the Guard of Honour at Nelson Mandela's funeral in December 2013.

(2)  Manus O'Riordan: 'Mandela Owed Gerry Adams, And Nelson Repaid The Debt!', Irish Political Review, Vol 21, No 1, Jan 2014.

The traditional Irish nationalist view of Northern Ireland was that it was a simple product of British Imperialism and that the Unionism of the Ulster Protestants, especially the Ulster Protestant working class, was a superficial phenomenon, a combination of false consciousness and bribes. The 'Orange state', with its perverse political system of a permanent majority lording it over a permanent subjugated minority, could be overthrown by a determined effort and both Protestants and Catholics could then be equal partners in the politics of a sovereign state - the Republic of Ireland. My comrades, educated in this way of looking at things, came to Northern Ireland to lend a hand in the business of building a united Socialist Ireland. But, being independent minded people, capable of changing ideas in the light of the realities confronting them, they soon concluded that the Ulster Protestants and their opposition to any notion of a united Ireland, were a much more substantial phenomenon than they had thought. They set about trying to understand this phenomenon and produced, very quickly and without any University formation (and of course without any of the grant-aid people with a University formation seem to need before they engage in any intellectually demanding work) an impressive body of literature arguing, or rather demonstrating that the Ulster Protestants were a distinct national community (not just 'Irishmen' suffering from false consciousness) which had good reasons, cultural and economic (not just marginal benefits), for resisting incorporation into an all-Ireland state. This was the 'two nations analysis' which was much talked about and much abused at the time, with the real source of it only rarely being acknowledged. (3)

(3)  'In the autumn and winter of 1969/70 I undertook a rapid survey of the history of the past two centuries, chiefly through the files of newspapers held in the library in the Shankill Road. I had become thoroughly suspicious of historians, so I decided to look at history in the raw in the newspapers and pamphlets of each period. I arrived at a view of things which seemed to be sound, even though it was original ... It boils down to this: that the Ulster Protestants are not puppets of landlords or of English Tories; that they are a people, with the awkward qualities of a people; that their will as a people could not be broken by intimidation; that they had sufficient reason for refusing to come under an all-Ireland government based on a form of Catholic ascendancy; and that the factors which might tend to bring North and South together in the long run could never become operative while the South asserted a sovereign right over Northern Ireland, regardless of the will of the people there.' - Brendan Clifford: Canon Sheehan - A turbulent priest, substance of a talk given in 1989, Aubane Historical Society, 2nd ed 2008. The story is the more remarkable if we note that Brendan Clifford speaks with a marked North Cork accent, the Shankill Rd is the heart of militant Protestant Belfast and 1969/70 is the period when the Protestants were wired up to the invasion of the Ardoyne and the burning of Bombay Street. 

What distinguished our position from that of mainstream Irish Nationalism - which we called 'Catholic nationalism' because Catholicism was what chiefly defined its distinctive national culture - was that we drew a distinction between partition as such and the existence of Northern Ireland as a distinct political entity with its own 'parliament'. Partition reflected a real demographic difference which could not be wished away. This wasn't just a matter of trying out of the charity of one's heart to accommodate two different cultural traditions. We are talking about two peoples willing to arm themselves and fight, to make war, in their own defence.


It was actually my people - the Ulster Protestants - who introduced the gun, or at least broke the state's monopoly of the gun, into the situation, in 1914. We armed ourselves and organised militarily to resist 'Home Rule'. 'Home Rule' should not be confused with independence. The Irish Home Rule party at the height of its power never imagined that Britain would allow Ireland to be independent. What they wanted and what they thought they had secured after half a century as the unquestioned leader of Irish Catholic opinion, was something resembling what we currently have in Wales. The Home Rule government would still be subordinate to the British Crown and Parliament. And as proof of continued loyalty to Britain, the Home Rule leadership in 1914 threw themselves into an enthusiastic recruiting campaign for Irish cannon fodder in Britain's war against Germany. (4) Some 50,000 Irishmen died in that war and doubtless an equivalent number of Germans, Austrians and Turks were killed by Irishmen. And this wasn't simply a question of the long tradition of Irishmen joining the British army to make a living. This was the recognised leaders of the Irish Catholic nation making their own deliberate political decision to engage their people in war - the first time that had happened since the seventeenth century when the Irish Catholic nation supported the legitimate British monarch, James II, against the usurper William III. (5) And nowhere was the recruiting for Britain's war done more enthusiastically than among the Catholics in the North East corner of Ireland, especially in Belfast - the people who, sixty years later, would organise themselves as the Provisional IRA.

(4)  Pat Walsh tells the story in The Rise and Fall of Imperial Ireland, Belfast, Athol Books, 2003.  

(5)  Clifford makes the point forcefully in his Introduction to The Christian Brothers' History of the Great War, Belfast, Athol Books, 2007.

Isn't it astonishing - isn't it an object worthy of serious thought - that at the end of that war, in the 'khaki election' held in December 1918, when the Irish who had fought in it were numbered among the 'victors' and might, one would have thought, have participated in the euphoria of victory, the Home Rule Party, which had led them into war, was decimated and Sinn Fein, a party that had barely existed prior to the war, swept the board on a programme of total independence from Britain and very rapidly (though of course benefitting from skills they had been taught over the previous four years) produced an army capable and willing to fight for it?