Counter-Insurgency Keynesianism and Structural Unionism

Guest writer Liam O'Ruairc with a piece examining the success of British state strategy in the North of Ireland.

According to Owen Sullivan, transforming the oppositional movement’s relation to the state in the six counties was called by the British government “Ulsterisation - Normalization - Criminalization". But those three terms refer to something more specific and more limited.

In January 1975, the Gardiner Report recommended the abolition of special category status for people imprisoned for scheduled offences – that is ‘criminalisation’. In January 1976, a commission headed by Sir John Bourn published a report entitled The Way Ahead recommending police primacy – ‘Ulsterisation’ – to give international public opinion the impression that a process of ‘normalisation’ was at work in the north.

Ulsterisation, criminalisation and normalisation are insufficient to account for the role of the British state and its strategies in managing the conflict in the north. Republicans have mostly not taken into account the social and economic effects of Direct Rule and their impact on the nationalist population since its introduction in 1972.

Northern Ireland is financially on life-support from the British state. During the 1960s, financial support from the British government represented five to ten percent of the region’s income, but by the mid-1980s it represented over a third of it. Based on the value of the British pound for 1980, British financial support rose from £100 million in 1970 to £1.6 billion in 1985. The British subvention represented 7% of Northern Ireland’s finances in 1968, but over 33% in 1985. (Bob Rowthorn & Naomi Wayne, Northern Ireland: The Political Economy of Conflict, Oxford: Polity Press, 1988, 98) Last year, the British government spent in Northern Ireland more than £10.5 billion than it collected in taxes in the region.

One of the main effects of direct rule has been the growth of the public sector. If in 1960, 22% of the economically active population of the six counties worked for the public sector, by 1992 it was around 39%. Between 1950 and 1993, public sector jobs in Northern Ireland increased by 22.8%. More specifically, between 1974 and 1992 jobs in health and social services increased by 27.8%, in education by 26.3%, in the security forces by 54.3%. (Vani K. Borooah, Growth and Political Violence in Northern Ireland 1920-96, in : Silvio Borner & Martin Paldam (eds) The Political Dimension of Economic Growth, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998, 271)

If the conflict can account for the growth of jobs in the security forces, the overall growth of public sector jobs corresponds to a deliberate state strategy to contain the destabilising effects of the conflict and disappearance of private sector jobs. (Peter Shirlow & Mark McGovern (1996) Sectarianism, Socioeconomic Competition and the Political Economy of Ulster Loyalism, Antipode, 28:4,388)

Public spending represents over 65% of Northern Ireland’s GDP and by 1995, four people of working age out of ten were directly employed by the state, and four others were working indirectly for the state through companies depending on public spending or public sector contracts. (Mike Tomlinson (1995), Can Britain leave Ireland? The Political Economy of War and Peace, Race and Class, 37:1, 8) Since British state subsidies and the growth of the public sector are part of a social and economic strategy to manage the conflict, this can be called counter-insurgency Keynesianism.

What has been the impact of the counter-insurgency Keynesianism on the nationalist population? In 1975, the Canadian scholar E.A Aunger carried the most in-depth study concerning the relation between religion, social class and work. This study based mainly on the 1971 census showed that Catholics were under-represented in the most prestigious jobs and highest positions but were over-represented in the lower social categories and occupations. (E.A Aunger, Religion and Class : An Analysis of 1971 Census Data, in R.J Cormack & R.D. Osborne (eds) Religion, Education and Employment : Aspects of Equal Opportunity in Northern Ireland, Belfast: Appletree Press, 1983, 24-42).

However, the impact of direct rule, reforms and the expansion of the public sector have resulted in very significant upward social mobility for the nationalist population. (Richard Breen (2000), Class Inequality and Social Mobility in Northern Ireland 1973-1996, American Sociological Review, 65:3, 392-406) By the 1990s, nationalists were very much present amongst accountants, professionals, banking, architects, university jobs and the public sector. (Breen, op.cit, 397)

If in 1971, only 15% of engineers and 18% of accountants came from the nationalist community, by 1991 it was respectively 31% and 42%. (Meghan Cox Gurdon, N. Ireland's Minority Beats Back a Stereotype, The Christian Science Monitor, 27 March 1996).

The major effect of the post-1971 public sector expansion…was not to raise the growth rate of the Northern Ireland economy or to make the economy more competitive but to alter the distribution of rewards. The chief benificiary of this expansion was the middle class … A large proportion of these benefits accrued to, and indeed were responsible for the rise of, the Catholic middle class…The position of middle-class Catholics improved considerably under Direct Rule. Even working-class Catholics…were better off under rule from Westminster than under that of Stormont. -  (Vani K. Borooah, op.cit.,271)

The traditional nationalist middle class in Northern Ireland was made up of mostly of teachers, lawyers, priests, doctors, pub owners and was essentially orientated towards the catholic population. (R.J Cormack & R.D. Osborne, The Evolution of A Catholic Middle Class, in Adrian Guelke (ed), New Perspectives on the Northern Ireland Conflict, Aldershot : Avebury, 1994, 65) In contrast, the new catholic middle class is essentially concentrated in the public sector and it gradually raising to its top. This has been confirmed by a study based on the results of the 1971, 1981 and 1991 census. (R.J Cormack & R.D. Osborne, op.cit, 79) This nationalist middle-class is also called ‘new’ as its arrival in that social category is quite recent, thanks to counter-insurgency Keynesianism. A study based on the 2001 census indicates that only 17% of catholics belonging to the highest social and economic category were born in it compared to 33% of protestants. (Richard Breen (2001), Social Mobility and Constitutional and Political Preferences in Northern Ireland, British Journal of Sociology, 52:4, 626)

There used to an argument on the political left that Northern Ireland was ‘irreformable’, but the actual success of state reforms (in housing, discrimination, employment etc) has seriously weakened that argument. Nationalists feel much more comfortable in and with Northern Ireland and the consequence of this in terms of constitutional preference has been a decrease of Irish re-unification as preferred option and an increase for maintaining the Union. Based on the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, Irish unity as preferred constitutional option has constantly diminished since 1998.

If in 1998, 49% of catholics surveyed chose re-unification as their favoured constitutional option, by 2010 it fell to 33%. In contrast, if in 1998 only 19% of catholics chose being part of the United Kingdom as their favoured constitutional option, by 2007 this rose to 39% and 52% in 2010. This was the first year were over 50% of catholics chose this constitutional option. (See: Northern Ireland Life and Times Surveys. Module : Political Attitudes - Constitutional Preference. Available here.

Other opinion polls have so far confirmed this tendency. In 2012, The Belfast Telegraph organised an opinion poll on ‘what would you vote if a referendum on Irish re-unification took place ?’ Only 7% of catholic respondents would vote for immediate re-unification, 42% for re-unification by 2032, 38% would vote no in any case and 14% had no opinion. This means most Catholics would not vote for a united Ireland now or in twenty years. (Liam Clarke, Most Catholics would not vote for united Ireland…now or in 20 years, The Belfast Telegraph, 11 June 2012).

The fact that a growing number of nationalists are comfortable with their position within Northern Ireland and depend on the British state as a source of income explains a lot why the Union with Great-Britain is tolerated or even accepted by them. This can be called ‘structural unionism’ : nationalists, even if they do not define themselves as ‘British’ or ‘Unionists ‘, will accept the union as long as they have ‘parity of esteem’ and their cultural identity is recognised. As Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill said in 1969 : 'It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants.' (Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, Interview with The Belfast Telegraph, 10 May 1969) Or as Friedrich Engels had noted a century earlier :

The worst about the Irish is that they become corruptible as soon as they stop being peasants and turn bourgeois. True, this is the case with most peasant nations. But in Ireland it is particularly bad. - (Engels to Marx, 27 September 1869)

This has been facilitated by the existence of a specific northern nationalism which has been far more concerned with the position of the nationalist community within Northern Ireland than the ‘incomplete’ business of 1916 or the irredentist articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. It is in that specific northern nationalism that the dynamic of Provisional republicanism is located rather than in a 32-county project. The development of the Provisional IRA from 1970 was less connected to the ‘external’ issue of partition and more related to the ‘internal’ structural inequality experienced by nationalists within the north. (See Enda Staunton, The Nationalists of Northern Ireland 1918-1973, Dublin : The Columba Press, 2001, 310-312) It expresses more a ‘sectional’ interest than a universal ideal.

The emphasis should be on the discontinuity rather than on an imaginary tradition of supposed ‘unbroken continuity’. It was more a reaction to how the British state behaves while it is in Ireland than to British presence as such. Provisional republicanism arose from the ashes of Bombay Street not from the rubble of Sackville Street and traces its origins in Defenderism and Hibernianism. (Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, second edition, London : Penguin, 2007, 83-84) A historian even raised the possibility that: 'the Gerry Adams of recent years may yet come to be regarded as a more successful reincarnation of Joe Devlin.' (A.C. Hepburn, Catholic Belfast and Nationalist Ireland in the Era of Joe Devlin, 1871-1934, Oxford University Press, 2008, 283).


  1. Absolutely top notch article. Copy pasted a sentence to put here but ended up deciding the entire article is so good to do so would be pointless. Excellent stuff.

    Republicans really need to realise that the word itself or indeed the 'creed' of republicanism is not the holy grail or an ACE card. This article for me really puts things bang into perspective. a Great read.

  2. Meant to add, demographics show that with Derry and Belfast and the majority of other northern areas having RC majorities republicans need to think less about crawling to unionism and a little more about what relevance (if any)events of 1916 hold for RCs in the north in 2014. Particularly in light of Free State and in particular De Valera and FF disinterest on the issue. People don't forget. Why would RCs rush into Dublin's arms if cozy enough in Stormont.

  3. Definitely a great article as Larry has said, the origins of the Provisionals are important in any understanding of how we ended up where we are today - i.e. an internal settlement. If we are to concede that the analysis that the dynamic was the inferior position of the nationalist community internal to the six-counties then we need to recognise that any attempt to restructure the republican project needs to move away from that and locate itself in an all-Ireland context where the argument is defined by sovereignty

  4. i have my doubts about engels but that quote from him is on the money. heres another quote i heard my grandmother say (i think its an old english saying) - you put a beggar on horseback and he'll ride to hell. that was the irish during the septic tiger years. and now they cant pay the electricity bill for the monstrosities of houses they built for themselves to keep up with and surpass the jones's. fuck em. ive given up on the irish. theres the odd sound gael still knocking arund out there and thank God i bump into one every now and again. The sleeveen cun*s down here gave away the oil and gas and now they cant pay the heating bill. It would be funny if it wasnt so pathetic. you may get the brits out of ireland someday, but you'll never get rid of the beggar on horseback brigade. theyd sell their mother, and in fact, they actually have. eire nua is still a good and realistic program. at the same time, are we not all ruled/controlled by corporations and banks.

  5. Sovereignty is key grouch and a new constitution capable of curbing the instincts you're referring to

  6. Grouch

    You are bang on and the Engels quote summed it up perfectly in my book. Just shows you how historically consistent the Irish have been. More interested in the land war than Independence. Sean Bres you are hitting your head off a wall for a people that can't see past the next euro. Eire Nua wont happen Grouch but I see an RC majority making a pretty good job of the wee 6 counties in the not too distant future. Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal could do worse than join the wee 6 and then you'd have your Eire Nua of sorts. God knows those 3 Ulster counties were left for dead by Dublin anyhow.

    When the border commission was debated in the Dail a delegation from the north was refused access to the building and refused a hearing. For a scrapping of some debts owed to London the Free State accepted that the border would remain the same and the report shelved. Sold down the river literally. Think long hard about that one!

    And good old Dev had zero interest in Irish unity. This is very clear during WW2 when Churchill the old judas tried to float the idea for an ending of Irish neutrality. Dev didn't want the unionists upsetting his little party and he was also against RC majority counties and Derry joining the Free State because he felt a larger RC presence in the North undermined Stormont.

    That's the man who caused a civil war.... Jesus wept.

    Sean, honestly, find a beneficial hobby.

  7. Come on now Larry, surely you can see the shifts in attitude, the days of Dev are long gone. Liam's article shows us that for republicanism to find fertile ground it needs to be more than a six-county phenomenon based on the nationalist experience under British rule. The run-up to 2016 might conceivably awaken the national consciousness of the wider people and provide the political space republicanism needs to take root again. The last thing we should do at this stage is just give up. Regardless of whether we ever actually achieve our goals or not it's important we at least try given all that's went before, in this day-and-age the price for doing so is considerably less than in the past, so much-so that it can even be somewhat dismissively referred to as a hobby as you stated above. Keep going and see what comes of it I reckon, if nothing else at least we'll keep our dignity

  8. Sean

    A sectarian head count can always be engineered in the final analysis but republicanism simply doesn't feature in the equation. It is an out of date lamentable creed. Irish people have shown time and again personal betterment comes before all else. I suggest if the people of Cavan Monaghan and Donegal were offered a very lucrative carrot to join the wee 6 and reunite Ulster in a federal Ireland the chances are they'd 'go for it'. Bit harsh on my part, but nothing would surprise me. Republicanism never took root Sean. People reacted to executions in 1916 and displaced a feeble Parliamentary Party in 1918 at the elections. In the 50s the Border Campaign was a disaster and in 1969 people were reacting once again to a combination of unionist bigotry and the latest British atrocity and later out of sympathy for hunger strikers. Where exactly does the republican political philosophy/creed fit in?

    Aye plug away surely, but remember what type of people you are knocking yourself out for. Not just the 'electorate' the dissos have managed about 4 stiffs and there are how many in jail... a hundred or two? Quite a lucrative business for someone going on out there.

  9. Perhaps apathy on the national question is more to do with its absence from the agenda of the establishment parties than any lapse in the patriotic spirit of the Irish people. Just a thought not really a criticism

  10. lets not forget also, we as a people were so massacred mutilated genocided dispossessed abused and terrorised beyond all comprehension (for a good 300 years or near it, by one of the most ruthless empires to terrorise the globe) that we have been left weakened psychologically and loads of other ways. colonialism works. they are-were evil bastards. there are lots of sound paddys out there but we are retarded politically and we have had no leaders in an aeon. theres loads of bastards in other countries too lets not forget. i believe in sovereignty and a republic is the embodiment of that hope. thats why i set up my own one. bres, larry, if ive any leftovers from my first years harvest i will lob it up your way.

  11. Grouch
    They have had 90 yrs in the 26 to show what they can do and frankly if they'd not got into Europe on England's coat tail with their begging bowl we would all be dancing at the cross roads and cutting turf to this day. AND they still messed that up out of pure greed. Then the nation had the bankers gambling debts put on the heads of the entire population by a man they had the temerity to label a 'patriot'. I think your plan to disappear from the grid is the correct one. Beware of Waco and Ruby Ridge; the system doesn't like 'independence'.

  12. Very interesting article. But even as the British were well in to their counter-insurgency Keynesianism appeasement policy Irish Catholics who worked within the public sector still believed in the unification of this island. What the British have been successful at and in conjunction with all the political parties on the Island is to portray ‘a shared future’ within N Ireland as the only solution. We can see this being played out every day with the referendum on Scotland. The British are pulling in all their resources to convince the Scots that they are completely incapable of going it alone with particularly strong emphasis on the economic disaster awaiting their independence. They too, the Scots, have a very high dependency on public sector jobs and the anti-independent British, both Scots and English, are employing a very powerful psychological weapon with this and have and are successfully conditioning people to think on a micro level....a case of being conditioned to the point where you can’t see the wood for the trees. Any future political movement here would need to concentrate on getting the people to understand the malevolent nature of this psychological weapon....shouting about working class versus the established class will not work for people don’t get the ‘class system’ anymore....getting them to understand that although they are on the ladder of opportunity the political climate here will only ever allow them to climb so high...if they want to get to the top then we have to convince them that this is only achievable through unification.

    Oh, I would be cautious of any poll on Irish unity and the resultant the end of the day, when you’re Irish, you’re Irish!

  13. Good shout Nial. We have to start over again organisationally and I say that as someone who realises the vast majority don't give two hoots for my analysis. People are happy enough to continue on with this system despite its many flaws, at the very least they're too consumed by their own private interests to get off their ass and do something. The greatest triumph of Thatcherism can be found in its destruction of society and the obliteration of community solidarity - 'there is no such thing as society'. People might moan about the state of the economy and society but getting involved in a meaningful process to bring about change is the furthest thing from their minds once they shut the door and close the blinds. We are well and truly contained, Britain has done a real number on us this time. Perhaps Sinn Fein recognised this and moved to electoralism in response or perhaps their shift is itself responsible.

    Either way, the British position in Ireland has never been more secure because to a great extent it's now a 'hidden' occupation which passes itself off successfully with the greater part of the people as benign, being able to do so because former opponents of the state have been brought in to legitimise that very system. They might be under the impression they can bring about change but it will only ever be change that meets the approval of the state and will never have a revolutionary dynamic. This incorporation of violent resistance into the system is a strategic masterstroke by the Brits and makes our task infinitely more difficult. The possibility of making real political and social progress has been squandered for the crumbs from the table. It's a shame but it's reality.

    We need to begin by acknowledging exactly where we are and that we can have all the textbook answers and all the proper criticisms and analysis in place but it won't make a blind bit of difference without a movement to spearhead the efforts to bring about change. We need to be about building that movement and it's going to be a long, long process, if indeed it can even be done. That's my tuppence worth but I do think there's a strong point to be made, as you've done, that the Irish will always be Irish and when it comes down to it that might just matter more than some people think. And it's not as if we're all bad - the vast majority are people simply trying to get by and it's unfair to tar them all as scoundrels

  14. 'being able to do so because former opponents of the state have been brought in to legitimise that very system'.

    And there we have it in a nutshell. From De Valera to Goulding and on to Adams and Co. and of course lets not be forgetting the greatest co-opted example of them all, Mandela! You may want to begin rather than from the viewpoint of the past, look at the present and ask what can you provide to people that is so much superior and desirable in comparison to what they have now? If you hit on a plan where will you get the money to implement it? Westminster? Europe? What vision do you have for the Irish economy that isn't based on lamenting the dearth of social welfare entitlements? Complaining endlessly isn't a manifesto. It's more a headache and a mega turn off. Just saying like.

    Obama promised (lied through his teeth) change and it was the mere possibility of it and the Bush legacy that got him elected. But there was never any substance to his rhetoric. Plus the republicans never behave as an opposition, more like a deposed government in waiting and a sabotage unit for everything the Democrats attempt.

    There's a finite budget and other than tinkering with it there's little else that appeals to people. Revolution or upheaval goes nowhere fast. Turds float to the top when everyone else is dead or sickened sufficiently.

    Tinkering from within is perhaps the best option and SF have already hijacked that wee vehicle both sides of the border. And also we should keep in mind 'alternative' republicans are already engaged in an electioneering programme. I'm not interested in voting for a party with the duo of a heavily suspected Mi5 man and a paedo facilitator running it. So an alternative may be a good idea. But I still don't see at this stage what republicanism has to do with any of it to be honest. The more time passes the less sense it makes.

    When the evidence of the same political trajectory is there for all to see, those insisting on plugging away to bring us all to a historical ground-hog day just makes no sense. The sign of madness, because it is always the same result.

  15. What you seem to be saying is that Sinn Fein have taken the best option available to them given the dynamics in the political process you identify, basically that your opposition to the party is based on who's running it as opposed to actual policy. Least that's how it reads

  16. Why reverse the clock to end up like the rest in the same place. Start at the head of the line for a change. Do you want to live in 1918 Ireland?

  17. waco was awful larry, and yes they will fuck people up who will try to live off the grid.well said niall but who cares about scotland, even the scots dont. fluoride and tv are the opium of the people. very dumbed down population now. brainwashed corporate generation want more sugar and celebrities. and drink and drugs too sadly. i dont think in terms of irish, english, french, scots etc anymore. i stick with humans now of any colour or creed or nationality. you'll be able to be in australia in half an hour in 100 years. anywhere in europe in 3 mins. sovereignty versus slavery will still be an issue then probably. humans versus corporate mong heads.

  18. I don't think anyone's looking to rewind the clock, we're just looking the best way forward to achieve progress worthy of the Irish people

  19. Sean

    as should be the care. But might a rigid republican creed be a hindrance?

  20. Honestly I feel the Societies are trying to create a progressive alternative here Larry, located yes in the tradition of republicanism but also an effort to move forward in directions capable of resonating the wider people as you suggest

  21. fair enough, but 'republican' isn't a sacred word. It became inspirational in Ireland after French and American revolutions a long long time ago. Look at both of those nations today. USA in particular is a global historical menace and tragedy. At home it is the very thing it fought to break free from, on steroids. Money rules. France has some great virtues in relation to working conditions and social standards. But so too do Scandinavian nations, even more so in fact.

    Too much to consider before nailing feet to the floor with a single word (republican). It's as if anything else is some kind of betrayal. The betrayal is SF professing to be republican. Unfortunately they are so dishonest it is astounding. Expedience-SF is their reality. Maybe they are politically correct, but integrity isn't something they could spell. That doesn't seem to matter, for now.