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How sectarian divides helped Britain rule in Northern Ireland

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Divides between Protestants and Catholics came from those at the top writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2752
British troops marching into Derry in 1970
British troops marching into Derry in 1970

Throughout its existence, Northern Ireland has been a political slum characterised by repression, sectarianism and poverty. The state enshrined Britain’s policy of divide-and-rule. James Craig, one Unionist prime minister, said it was “a Protestant state for a Protestant people”.

For half a century, the Ulster Unionist Party won every election, formed every government, supplied every cabinet minister, and took every decision.

Sir Basil Brooke, prime minister from 1943-1963 said he was “proud not to have a Catholic about the place”—he meant his servants. He added, “I recommended people not to employ Roman Catholics, who are 99 percent disloyal.”

Sectarianism encouraged Protestant workers to look down on Catholic workers.

Divisions within the working class weakened its ability to fight. Though there were outbursts of militancy that attempted to overcome sectarianism—such as the unemployed riots of 1932.

This self-reproducing system had a weak spot—mass opposition.


Northern Irish towns had a deliberately discriminatory voting system in local elections. Rich businessmen could get as many as 25 votes while the unemployed had none. Elections were “gerrymandered”— boundaries fixed—to ensure a Unionist majority in predominantly Catholic areas.

Housing lists were static to keep the electoral fraud secure. Campaigns for fair housing or fair votes were a threat to the state.

A few hundred people assembled in the mainly Protestant area of the Waterside in Derry on 5 October 1968. The protest was to spark one of the biggest revolts against the British state. Around 600 civil rights protesters carried placards with messages such as, “class not creed”. Their demonstration was banned.

Marching into the walled city was a privilege that was only available to the sectarian bigots of the Orange Order.

Police laid into the marchers and in armoured cars fought to drive the people back to Catholic ghettoes.

The partition of Ireland—fighting the empire
The partition of Ireland—fighting the empire
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Protesters erected barricades against the police.

In January 1969 B-Specials—paramilitary police—and other Loyalists repeatedly attacked a march organised by the left as it passed through Burntollet on the outskirts of Derry.

Barricades were erected again in the working class Bogside district, and the police were excluded from the area for three days as the march struggled into the city.

The barricaded zone was dubbed “Free Derry”. The slogan, “You are now entering Free Derry” was painted on a wall in the Bogside.

This territorial exclusion of state forces showed the fragility of the sectarian state’s control of many of the predominantly Catholic areas.

Derry was also the site of the Battle of the Bogside. This was large-scale rioting in August 1969 after police and the B-Specials attempted a pogrom through the Bogside.

A single dairy reported having 43,000 milk bottles stolen over a three-day period to make petrol bombs.

The coercive capacity of the Northern Ireland state was running out. The British Labour government responded by propping it up by sending troops onto the streets.

What would later be described as “ethnic cleansing” took place on a massive scale.

Protestant gangs drove Catholic families from their homes—with extreme violence, often overseen by British soldiers.


The assaults of the cops and later the British army taught that there would be no civil rights until the sectarian state was smashed.

The state responded with more and more repression in the form of internment without trial and the massacring of civilians on a civil rights march on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

The space of resistance was filled by armed struggle against Britain.

The depth of resistance meant that the British state could not repress Northern Ireland to stability.

But the repression did weaken the potential for mass resistance that could have ended the sectarian state.

The British determination to prop up the sectarian state led to 30 years of open conflict. That’s the subject of our next column.

This is the second in a series of articles on the partition of Ireland. Read our coverage at

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