by Susan Rosenthal
After reviewing my book, POWER and Powerlessness, Patricia Campbell invited me to address the annual conference of the Independent Workers’ Union of Ireland.
On arriving in Belfast, we hailed a taxi. The radio was broadcasting a soccer match between England and Israel. When we asked the driver which team he favored, he replied, “I’d blow them both off the field.” And so my political education began.
Many Irish feel a kinship with Palestinians. Painted wall murals depicting Palestinian resistance stand next to symbols of Irish resistance. At one time, the British occupied both lands until it devised the Ulster solution – planting loyal regimes in its colonies to minimize the cost of military occupation.
The creation of a loyalist-dominated Ireland in the 19th century was the model for the establishment of Israel a hundred years later. As the British governor of Palestine wrote at the time, a Jewish state would provide for England, “a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”
How hostile are the Irish to their British masters? I asked one Dublin taxi diver who replied, “we’ve gone beyond all that.” A moment later he was cut off by a driver sporting British license plates. He raced after him yelling, “You’re a bully! You’re a bloody British bully!” I thought he would haul him out of the car and beat him up. So much for being beyond all that.
The morning after Sinn Fein and the DUP announced their power-sharing agreement, I was scheduled to speak about my book on Radio Ulster. When asked what I thought of the new political arrangement, I responded that it seemed similar to the two-party system in the United States – one talks right, the other talks left, and they both do the same thing. I suspect the host disliked my answer, because he cut the interview short.
Civil war isn’t good for business
Many Republicans cannot understand how a party that stands for Irish independence could join with British loyalists to administer Northern Ireland for Britain.
The answer to this betrayal lies in economics. Ireland, including Northern Ireland, is experiencing an economic boom, and civil war isn’t good for business. When Britain refused to consider Irish independence, the Irish middle class did what it always has done – it chose prosperity over principles.
I was introduced to Republicans who had lost loved ones in the fight for liberation. Their bitterness and anger at Sinn Fein’s betrayal was palpable. Many young Republicans still languish in jail as political prisoners with no hope of release. I saw buildings demolished by fire and others riddled with bullets. I learned of youngsters who had been tortured and killed. I met one old soldier whose vacant eyes seemed fixed on some distant horror.
Patricia drove us through several working-class areas in Belfast. Catholic and Protestant housing complexes sat side-by-side, rival wall murals taunting each other with giant figures of masked gunmen and fallen martyrs. The chilling 100-foot-high wall dividing two of these neighborhoods stood as a menacing monument to British imperialism. Ironically, it was extended with barbed wire after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that supposedly marked the end of the civil war.
Middle-class areas of Belfast had no dividing walls, no patriotic bunting, no curb stones sporting the colors of the opposing sides. Capitalism doesn’t need to divide the middle class; its loyalty is assured. In contrast, the working class must be divided. They are the majority, and their unity is what the capitalists most fear.
The Independent Workers’ Union conference was the highlight of my trip. I’ve attended many labor gatherings, but this one held a special meaning. After so much sacrifice, loss, and betrayal, people still wanted to fight! I was moved to tears.
We met fishermen from Lough Neagh who had been dealt a setback and chose to keep fighting. A fired social worker was also fighting back. One activist reported on a protest against the sale of common lands. Another informed us of the campaign against water charges. There were veterans of the class war and young workers with babes in their arms.
I had been invited to give the keynote address. All week I wondered what a Canadian doctor could say about power and powerlessness to a people who had lived these things for generations. So I told them that they had the power to change the world, because they do. And I left with hope in my heart.
As long as there is no justice there will be no peace. As long as any one of us remains oppressed, none of us can be free.