Yes We Have No Bananas: Class and Sectarianism in Northern Ireland by T.J.

Black Flag article from the 2000s about class and other divisions in Northern Ireland / the six counties.

From my home in the north-east of England I can catch a flight to Belfast which will get me there quicker than one to London. When I've been to Belfast before I've seen things that remind me of home: shipyards, rolling hills, terraced houses, the bloody rain. When I'm there I spend the same currency, speak the same language, and drink the same beer. I perceive that I see, what I sense I see at home, a population made up of a mainly white working class with a heritage shaped by the industrial Revolution, modern capitalism and the British state. Yet I realise that there is more to Belfast than this. For well over twenty years I've read left-wing articles which have implored the Catholic and Protestant working class communities of the north of Ireland/six counties to 'open their eyes' and to thus see the true enemy — the bosses.

However, in the history of Belfast, class solidarity across the religious divide has only really happened twice, in 1907 and 1932. Why only twice, if it is so bleeding obvious who the 'true enemy' is? Are the working class of the north of Ireland stupid? Of course not. The reality for the majority of people in Belfast is that it is religious affiliation, although as much a quirk of fate as mine of being born English, which is generally more important than any feelings of class solidarity, even though the latter do definitely exist. Therefore, in the north of Ireland/six counties, a worldview may be created in which religious affiliation is seen as the crucial, central factor in life. Just as, to my eyes, and based on my life experience, class is the crucial central factor in my life. By looking at some aspects of Belfast's social history, this article sets out to explore some of my anglo-centric class (mis) conceptions. Firstly, a word about definitions. The terms nationalist, republican, and Catholic are often used interchangeably as are Protestant, unionist, and loyalist. These amalgamations can be too simplistic. For example, a 1994 survey showed that a quarter of Catholics want the Union preserved and could therefore be called unionists1. Furthermore, 'it is erroneous to suggest that Republicanism is Catholic in ethos, motivation and ambition’2 and the Catholic Church has often criticised Republicans. Also, the two communities can be described as representing two different Christian religious sects (Catholic and Protestant), two different nationalist views (Irish nationalist and British nationalists) and two different ethnic groups. Though whether any of these terms help with understanding is open to debate.

In comparison, the importance of Belfast within the history of the north of Ireland over the last 150 years cannot be overstated. It has been said that, ‘without the existence of Belfast it seems likely that Ireland would have been united and independent by 1920’3. Historically, Belfast saw the foundation of, amongst others, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, People's Democracy and it was here that the 100,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force drilled before the First World War. Belfast was essentially a product of the Industrial Revolution, it had a significant working class, and Belfast has a long history of working class unrest and organisation. On the one hand some aspects could be viewed as positive. For example, one of the earliest Trades Union Congress meetings was held in Belfast, in 1893, in recognition of the importance of Belfast within the British labour movement. The 1907 Docks Strike, the first time that Catholics were unionised in significant numbers, saw Catholic and Protestant workers unite. At the height of the strike 100,000 marched on a demonstration in its support4. The strike led to rioting, the first and only mutiny by the Royal Irish Constabulary and thousands of troops on the streets of Belfast (not for the first time). Its main organiser, Jim Larkin, was an English Catholic, who employed the tactics of syndicalism. Posters of the time warned of the dark cloud of anarchy over Belfast and of 'Mercenary Anarchist Agitators'5. In 1919 an Engineers Strike saw 60,000 affected across Belfast in a dispute aimed at reducing the working week from 54 to 44 hours and only the presence of troops caused the strike to collapse6.

In 1932, at the height of the Depression, when a quarter of Belfast's workforce was unemployed7, an organisation called the Unemployed Workers Committee was formed. It included members of both the Catholic and Protestant working class of Belfast. A march in October 1932 attracted 60,000 people, led by a band that played the only non-sectarian tune they knew, 'Yes, we have no bananas'. The next day there were 7,000 in a subsequent march and serious rioting broke out8. Due to such disturbances, substantial increases in benefit were achieved and no further riots took place. However, once again working class unity between the communities was short-lived, as indicated by the severe sectarian riots of 19359.

Indeed there are several other aspects of Belfast's working class history which may be viewed negatively, and Belfast's history of segregation mirrored that of its surrounding region. For example, Protestant workers led sectarian riots and evicted Catholics10 with the result that, 'working class districts became entirely monoethnic’11. The majority of trade unionists in the shipyards and engineering industries of Belfast were skilled Protestant workers and were content to maintain their relatively privileged position. Furthermore, 'in 1892-3 the shipyard engineers were an essential element in the background of Unionist opposition to the threat of home rule'12. Thirty years later, in 1920, it was Protestant workers in the Belfast shipyards and engineering works who expelled all they considered ‘disloyal' meaning Catholics and socialists, the 'rotten Prods' as they were abusively called13. More recently, in 1974 the Ulster Workers Council, a body of Loyalist trades unionists, appeared and directed the general strike which brought down the power-sharing executive.

For these and other reasons, negative views of the entire working class of the north of Ireland have been put forward. For instance, one author describes 'the working classes of each side as the main carriers of the more conservative, irrational and extreme political philosophy, to be realised, if necessary, by violent means'. She continues by describing the requirement 'to modernise the working classes and thus obliterate their need to cling to their fundamentalist political and cultural values'14. Such a view of the working class as some dangerous animal, best caged and not stirred from its 'natural' position is not new, however to write off tens of thousands of individuals in such a way is arrogant.

Today, class remains important in the north of Ireland. Prior to the current 'Troubles' a major social survey noted that 39% of Catholic and Protestant respondents said they had more in common with people of their same class rather than those of the same religion15. Another large survey from 1997 showed that class politics are alive and well within both communities16. While Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) stated 'my Britishness is rooted in my sense of belonging to the wider British working class and its struggles and it is from the British working class movement that we take our political philosophy and perspective’17.

The two communities of Belfast have also tended to align themselves with two competing nationalisms. The nationalism of Belfast Protestants has been tied to ideas of British nationalism, which viewed itself as advanced, progressive and internationalist18. Further, being descended from, and part of, the same stock that had 'conquered' or 'civilised.' a huge part of the globe19 many Unionists saw themselves as a special people, superior and having a unique civilised culture20. These ideological differences were exaggerated by the fact that most Catholics in Belfast aligned themselves with Irish nationalism. Their perspectives were based on a sense of injustice at oppression and domination from Britain as well as a belief in the idea of self-determination for the people of Ireland. Importantly, the two competing nationalisms fed off each other. While differences between the two nationalisms were and remain important, it is also worth pointing out that the debate between them automatically downplays the concept of working class solidarity. Each nationalism 'has preached a community of class interests within the national group'21. When the issue of class was raised, 'the Protestant view was internationalist, characterising Irish nationalism as a backward-looking creed with no place in the strategy of the Irish working class. In the Catholic view this internationalism was "indistinguishable from imperialism" in that it ignored the colonial nature of the relationship between Ireland and England'22. Other authors would also argue that viewing the situation in terms of colonialism may provide understanding of the history of conflict in Northern Ireland23, 24.

As radical nationalism has always tended towards socialism25, so Irish nationalism, republicanism and the IRA have often found sympathy on the left. Jim Larkin and James Connolly added socialism to republicanism, while the IRA pronounced socialist ideals, especially in the 1930s and 1960s 26. A similar ideology can be seen in the pages of Sinn Fein's newspaper, where it has been stated that the 'objective of the republican movement is a socialist republic. Republicans cannot achieve equal citizenship or democracy under capitalism, where class, profit and exploitation prevail’27. It is also commonly accepted that, in general, Catholics were, and remain, discriminated against and the poorest in Northern Ireland28 so the socialist tradition of sympathy for the oppressed has meant that the left has inclined towards the Catholics of Northern Ireland. In turn it was recently shown that Catholics in Northern Ireland are more left-wing than Protestants29.

There is also a history linking unionists with right-wing ideology. There are the obvious links of Unionist clans to the British Conservative party, but there is evidence of fascist groups (Combat 18) being linked to loyalist para-militaries30. Such connections can lead to some left-wing commentators writing off the bulk of the Protestant working class of Belfast and the north of Ireland as reactionary31 or as dupes of the ruling class32 though other commentators are more sympathetic to the Protestant working class) 33 , 34. Indeed, some working class Belfast Protestants are proclaiming a class-based view. For example, David Ervine of the PUP has said that the 'politics of division see thousands of people dead, most of them working class'35. Conversely, it should be recognised that class conflict and ethnic conflict are not mutually exclusive and that 'ethnic militancy was not incompatible with class consciousness'36. Other authors have gone further and suggested that class consciousness and ethnic consciousness can be inseparable37.

In Northern Ireland the colonial relationship from plantation onwards was nurtured and sustained for four hundred years. With the Industrial Revolution, Belfast grew to be a major industrial centre within Britain and housed a significant working class community. Or more precisely, two separate working class communities. In discussing the issue of working class organisation in Belfast, it is important to be aware of any inherent bias. This author interprets events from an ideology in which class is a crucial factor. However, such a philosophy can entail an implicit belief in the 'naturalness’ of class consciousness compared with the 'divisiveness' of national consciousness38; of the authenticity of the class consciousness but the falseness of national consciousness as many on the left suggest39. However, this view is unlikely to be shared with a citizen of Belfast, where 'religious affiliation remains the best single predictor of party support and of attitudes to a range of politicised issues such as national identity and preferences about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland'40. Or, put another way `national identity assumes an importance in Northern Ireland not evident elsewhere in the United Kingdom'41 41. In a 'British' working class environment, poverty. industrial heritage, and a class-based analysis of the situation is not the full story. A little more understanding of the situation in the north of Ireland/six counties is needed.

By way of a conclusion

What I'm trying to say is that a lot of "our" left-wing theory which sees and interprets the world primarily or completely in terms of class, appears to me to be incomplete in a British city only 50 miles from Liverpool. If it is incomplete somewhere where people watch Coronation Street, follow both Premier Leagues and spend pounds in pubs, then how can we expect it to apply in places further away such as Gaza?

So no, I don't have any big conclusion about what to do next. Partly because any conclusion must be a product of collective discussion and work. Partly because the article comes from self-questioning and I aimed to pass on the results of that self-questioning, This is not to say that I've moved away from a class-based analysis, but I now feel that what I interpret as applying in Newcastle and Middlesbrough won't necessarily apply in Belfast or Derry, despite the huge similarities between these four British cities.

Ultimately, any theory must be informed by practice and vice versa. If our theory cannot handle complex issues without falling into the crudest class reductionism then we won't be taken seriously by the people we seek to influence. It also means that our practice will be flawed. Unless we understand reality we will never be able to change it.

  • 1. Breen, R. Who Wants a United Ireland/ Constitutional Preferences Among Catholics and Protestants in Breen, R., Devine, P. and Dodds, L, (eds) Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: the Fifth Report, Appletree Press, Belfast, 1996,40-46
  • 2. Brewer. J. D, and Higgins, G.I. Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, 1600-1998. MacMillan Press, Basingstoke, 1998, 162
  • 3. Hepburn. A. A Past Apart. Ulster Historical Foundation. Belfast-1996, 218
  • 4. Gray, J. City in Revolt. Blackstaff, Belfast, 1985. 205
  • 5. Gray, ibid, 84
  • 6. Patterson, H. Class Conflict and Sectarianism, Blackstaff Belfast, 1980, 92-114
  • 7. Maguire, W A. Belfast. Town and City Histories. Ryburn Publishing, Keele, 1993, 140
  • 8. Maguire, ibid, 141
  • 9. Maguire, ibid, 141
  • 10. Maguire, ibid. 90
  • 11. Hepburn. ibid. 149
  • 12. Maguire, ibid. 105
  • 13. Wichert, S. Northern Ireland since 1945, Addison Wesley Longman, Harlow, second edition, 1999,3
  • 14. Rose, R. Governing without Consensus. An Irish Perspective. Faber and Faber, London, 1971
  • 15. Rose, R. Governing without Consensus. An Irish Perspective. Faber and Faber, London, 1971
  • 16. Evans, U and Duffy, M. Beyond the Sectarian Divide,. the Social Bases and Political Consequences of Unionist and Nationalist Party Competition in Northern Ireland. British Journal of Political Science, 27, 47-81. 1997
  • 17. Quoted. in Brewer and Higgins. ibid. 44
  • 18. MacLaughlin, J. Theorising the Nation: 'Peoplehood' and 'Nationhood' as 'Historical happenings'. In Re-imagining the Nation-State. The Contested Terrains of Nation Building. Pluto Press, London, 2001.
  • 19. Mackenzie, J. Imperialism and Popular Culture. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1986
  • 20. MacLaughlin. ibid
  • 21. Rumpf, E. and Hepburn, A. Nationalism and Socialism in Twentieth Century Ireland. Liverpool, 1977, 222
  • 22. Hepburn, ibid., 133
  • 23. Miller, D. Colonialism and academic representations of the troubles. In Miller, D. (ed), Rethinking Northern Ireland, Addison Wesley Longman, Harlow, 1998. 3-6
  • 24. Brewer and Higgins, ibid, 209-211
  • 25. Rumpf and Hepburn. ibid, 13
  • 26. Bishop. P and Mallie, E. The Provisional IRA Heinemann. 1987, 52, 70
  • 27. An Phoblacht, 1998 Accessed 10/12/2001.
  • 28. Duffy, M sad Evans,. U. Class, Community Polarisation and Politics. In Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland, the Sixth Report by Dowds, L., Devine, P. and Breen, R. Appletree Press, Belfast, 1997. Or at
  • 29. Duffy and Evans, ibid
  • 30. Guardian. 2000. Accessed 10/12/2001
  • 31. Douglass, D. A Progressive and Just Cause. Heavy Stuff. 5, 1994
  • 32. Black Flag. 218, 2000
  • 33. Morgan ,ibid
  • 34. Patterson, ibid
  • 35. quoted in Black Flag, ibid.
  • 36. Hepburn. ibid, 176
  • 37. MacLaughlin, ibid.
  • 38. MacLaughlin, ibid.
  • 39. Hobsbawm, E. 'Policing Classes sad Nations, Saothar, vol. 7. 1982
  • 40. Duffy and Evans, ibid
  • 41. Maxon-Browne, E. National Identity in Northern Ireland. In Social Attributes in Northern Ireland; the First Report by Stringer, P, and Robinson, G. Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1991.

Posted By

Jul 6 2021 09:39


Black Flag magazine

  • In 1932, at the height of the Depression, when a quarter of Belfast's workforce was unemployed, a marchof working class Catholics and Protestants attracted 60,000 people, led by a band that played the only non-sectarian tune they knew, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’.

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