Socialist Politics and the Island.....How they fuel the great divide.

The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.


This statue, called 'The Speaker' stands on the steps of the Customs House in Belfast.  This was Belfast's equivalent of speakers corner, and was the site of many speaches by Larkin during the 1907 Dockers strike.  It is my understanding that this statue was originally supposed to celebrate the centenary of the dock strike, and was to have been of Larkin.  Local politics intervened, and instead we got this much more ambiguous character.

Poverty in Ireland in bygone centuries was always inextricably linked to the struggle for land.  We have all heard the generally accepted truths of absentee landlords and rack rents, but they do not tell the whole story.  Even in the 1840’s when the famine that has so shaped our island was really starting to bite, many more things influenced the effect that potato blight had on the population.

For example, the traditional way that property rights were inherited here divided land amongst all children.  Thus, if a family with 6 children worked 90 acres, the next generation (assuming no mortalities, emigration etc.) had to live on 15.  By the 1840’s, some families were trying to scratch a living from plots of around ¼ of an acre!  Poverty and malnutrition were endemic as a result, as was overworking of the soil and the crop monoculture that had such disastrous results.  Only after the famine did this system change to inheritance by the first male child that was pretty much universal throughout the rest of Britain.  We all know that the famine resulted in death and emigration on such a scale that Ireland’s population went into rapid decline. 

In fact, the island’s population has only really started to grow again since the 1960’s, although the population in the more industrialised north has seen constant growth since the 1880’s, this undoubtedly caused in part at least by agricultural labour moving north to find industrial work.  John Gray notes in his book about the 1907 Belfast dock strike, (City in Revolt), that one consequence of this northern population increase was to hold unskilled wage rates in the north at a much lower level than was prevalent in the rest of Britain.  By contrast, the norths rapid industrial growth saw skilled labour paid at much higher rates.  Much has been written about the gerrymandering of votes and the unequitable allocation of social housing here in the north.  There can be little doubt that at local government level, even before partition, a religious/ orange divide and conquer strategy was used by the ruling elite here in the north.  This policy of course became almost a part of the state after partition.

I was once told by an ex-shipyard employee, that employees at foreman level or above had to be Mason’s thus filtering staff to be acceptable and controllable.  It is notable too that older generations from Catholic households here in the north were not given names that would brand them as Catholic.  One Belfast man (named Thomas) that I worked with early in my career told of his going to find a job, (a much less formal process then than now).  He went to the prospective employer, was interviewed on the spot and promised the job.  Only then did the formal taking of details take place, and when his address then labelled him, the job offer was withdrawn, his presence then said to be, “likely to cause offence to some of our clients”.

Literacy was growing throughout the 19th century, along with industrialisation.  Those who had spent time in the British army/navy during the Napoleonic wars or in other service throughout the Empire as well as workers in the new factories of the era would have brought fresh ideas and outlooks through letters or on their return to their homeland.  Think then what the impact of texts like that at the start of this article would have had on those tenant farmers chained to a life of poverty on someone else’s land.  The text incidentally comes from a small political booklet first published in 1848, the height of the famine.  It first print was only 1000 copies.  It is taken from ‘The Communist Manifesto’, (it was originally titled, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’).  So when mass movements like the Land League and the left wing leanings of home rule politicians were growing at the same time as linen and shipbuilding did, conflict was bound to result.  The divide between land and industry; protestant and catholic; home rule versus anti home rule, all take on the same character.

I am by no means saying that left wing politics is an exclusively catholic or republican outlook, but it is notable that the very first annual conference of the British Labour Party, attended by Keir Hardy, Ramsey MacDonald etc. was located here in Belfast in 1907 because this was the fastest growing city in Britain at that time.  Yet, there is no direct Labour Party representation here now, probably a reflection on the other issues that have always affected northern politics.  Other than a few short outbreaks of class consciousness such as occurred in the 1907 dock strike, left wing politics here in the north remains a concept inextricably linked to Larkin, Connolly and others.  It has been further tainted by their involvement in the 1916 revolution, and allowed the northern government to preserve and build on the sectarian split until direct rule was imposed in the 1970’s.  While it is not the only factor in this, it is an important and rarely considered one.  Industrialists in the north were diametrically opposed to anything approaching Marxist socialist views and did everything in their power to work against them, including building up the old divides.  If we are ever to be able to live together we need to be able to recognise the mistakes and influences of our history.  As painful as that may be, I hope we can.

NB: As recognition that religious divides and atrocities are nothing new, please read the next post here about a place now named Carney Hill!


  1. I enjoyed your article. Politics in the North has a very interesting and convoluted history. Not repeating it would be a major step forward indeed!

  2. Thanks Mary. Our politics is indeed convoluted up here, but has had its amusing moments. The Queen's Bridge across the Lagan was built in the 1960's and Unionist councillors originally proposed naming it after Carson. Knowing that this name wouldn't please the city's Nationalist population, Gerry Fitt, a Nationalist councillor called their bluff by proposing the Queen's Bridge name. While the name is royal, he knew that the name came without Carson's anti Nationalist reputation, and that the Unionists could not refuse it. That was a clever compromise. One up for Gerry I think?


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