[Marxism] The Misuse of the Term "Sectarianism" in the Irish Struggle

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Mon Mar 15 06:39:54 MST 2004

List members may be interested in (an amended version of) my reply to
Michael Keaney, who invited me to explain on A-list why I eschew the
use of the word "sectarian" in the context of the six northeastern
Irish counties.

First of all, I think the word originally and properly designates a
continuing series of ruptures with mainstream Protestantism on the
grounds of an exclusive claim to truth about and access to salvation.
It became a metaphor for similar ruptures from mainstream Marxism, but
there can be no such use of it as a metaphor in interpreting the Irish
struggle.  It is a total misrepresentation equally of the imperialist
oppression and of the anti-imperialist resistance.

When the UK media (at its most progressive!) referred (at all!) to
"sectarian" murders (giving the lulling impression, through the eyes
of the supposedly liberal and secular, impartial and of course always
decent and well-wishing English, that "one side's murders were -- 
quantitatively as well as qualitatively -- as bad as the other") they
were camouflaging them and refusing to acknowledge them as what they
were --  murders by loyalists (loyalism, like the Klan, is spread
among magistrates and police chiefs) of random Catholics (labelled
"innocent" -- what does that make the others?).

As to England's being secular, note by the way that in 1859 there were
riots in England when Roman Catholic dioceses were set up and named -- 
none of them being allowed by the state church to be set up in the
traditional diocesan cathedral cities. The monarch -- and Lord
Chancellor, and other officials -- still by law cannot be Catholic.

To some extent the loyalists are maintaining Protestant supremacy,
burning Catholic churches to the ground, bombing Catholic graveside
services, throwing petrol bombs at people going to mass, ramming
Catholic church doors with cars --  all that sometimes on explicit
religious grounds: one such mobster said a unionist politician should
be ashamed of himself for saying Catholics were going to a religious
service -- "when his forefathers died to protest that that wasn't
religion, it was idolatry." (The motto on the UVF's badge is "For God
and Ulster").

But as the political economist Petty said frankly in the 17th century,
"one should not say Catholic and Protestant, but dispossessed [by the
English state over the centuries -- JD] and possessing of the land".
There is a complex history of many Irish Protestants resisting English
domination, and many Irish Catholics, including Dan O'Connell,
accepting it. But the partition of Ireland in the 1920s introduced a
new chapter, in which all-powerful northern loyalists were motivated
by an unbelievable bitterness and hatred of everything associated with
the words Ireland and Irish, unmoderated by an earlier all-Ireland
Protestant sense of being Irish, even if superior, pro-British Irish.
(It is today astonishing to read the words of a 1798 Loyalist ballad
which begins "Ye loyal sons of Erin...")

Contrary to the Loyalist programme, neither the nationalist
parliamentary response nor the Republican physical force response have
had anything to do with religion.  In fact, they have been so governed
by the symbolism of their French-donated 1848 tricolour of green and
*orange*, and by the statement in Pearse's 1916 Proclamation of the
Republic that "the children of the nation" have been divided only by
the wiles of a foreign government, that they made "the principle of
consent" (in effect, the Unionist veto) the cornerstone of their
"conflict resolution" peace process -- leading to the present
copper-fastening of imperialist rule. They do not see that Irish
Protestantism is to Orangeism as Judaism is to Zionism -- that would
be an insight of Connolly socialism.

Nevertheless, they have been and are still being accused of
"sectarianism", for instance in relation to Stormont Assembly voting.
Once the six counties has been accepted, the only alternative to
traditional "Ulster" one-party majority rule (Paisley's sniggering
definition of, and now his plan for, "democracy") is weighted Unionist
and nationalist quota voting.  Critics, even the IRSP, wrongly call
this "sectarian" -- because there is *in fact* a rough correlation
between the Protestant and the Catholic communities and Unionist and
national votes.  But to get the assembly out of a jam, two Alliance
Party members defined themselves as respectively Unionist and
nationalist -- not Catholic and Protestant.  As a matter of fact that
was an even dirtier trick than protesters thought, because the
Alliance [between Catholics and Protestants] Party is in fact a
unionist party -- the fraternal party of the British Liberal Party.

A Worker's Party poster  showed a fist throttling a snake with the
slogan "Smash Sectarianism!". That is of course typically and totally
abstract and meaningless, but what is implied (apart from "Smash the
*Provisionals*") is "Don't Raise the Divisive 'National' Question:
Unite Catholic and Protestant Workers on Bread-and-butter Issues".
The WP is the unpopular and insignificant rump of the Stalinist
*"Official"* Republicans (!) -- but Trotskyists like Eamon McCann have
always said and still do say the same.  The WP's scientific
know-it-all leaders, whose actual support and votes (no longer
existent) came only from the Catholic community, define imperialism as
the concern of science, an impersonal economic process, export of
capital; any concern with political imperialism is seen as (religious)
"sectarianism", and "green Hibernian nationalism" -- if not fascism.

In search of clarity,

This email was cleaned by emailStripper, available for free from

More information about the Marxism mailing list