Land! Peace! Freedom!

Christopher M. Hussey 1997

There are three inseparable components of a lasting settlement to Ulster’s and Ireland’s travail: land, peace, and freedom. Like interconnected chain links, these three come as a job lot, together or not at all.

All wars, fair or foul, are ultimately land wars, and, unless a stalemate ensues, all war settlements, fair or foul, involve land transfers. Ireland’s case is no exception. Indeed, everywhere on Ulster’s fraught socio-political landscape, past and present, you will see land.

Ascendancy and Descendancy

The plantation of Ulster involved the dispossession of the gaelic clans and the privatisation by planters of the previously free common lands. This was in a natural environment (rainy, uneven terrain, mild winters) that favoured a pastoralist economy and a mutualist tribalist civil society.

Because land values are publicly created privately appropriated wealth, privatised land entails a hierarchy of privilege. Because such land is assignable and because land values rise inexorably with economic development, this hierarchy persists over time.

In a true clan, land privileges are shared equally. But because Ulster’s land is not shared equally, protestant ascendancy and clan solidarity are maintained by rigidly enforced preferential employment of the protestant landless. Descendancy is maintained by the structural protestant land exaction on catholic labour and capital, and by the preferential exclusion of catholics from employment.

Should the land monopoly in Ulster shift to catholic ownership, as would most certainly be attempted, legally and illegally, in an attempted united Ireland, the relative positions of the two clans would thereby also invert.

Privatised land has thus created two roles for Irish people in their homeland – ascendancy or descendancy. Protestant ascendancy in Ulster, catholic ascendancy in a united Ireland. Privatised land has divided the people and the island of Ireland.

This english land monopoly system has made a devil’s brew of god’s creation in Ireland. With its land unfree, neither Ulster nor a united Ireland could ever be at peace for long.

Not an Inch

On the low value marginal lands and with the growth of the state, of course, this black and white picture shades into grey at the edges. Recent decades have also seen the emergence of a privileged state sector catholic middle class (‘fair employment’). But these recent changes have been imposed on Ulster in conditions of military occupation and generous cross channel exchequer transfers. If circumstances changed, this new shape of Ulster society would be rapidly recast into its traditional mould in the white heat of traditional pogrom.

This case hardened traditional mould has two facets – tribalism and hierarchy. The clan tribalism is a direct result of the natural environment, and is as Irish and as green as grass. The hierarchy is a result of the inheritable privilege concentration that accompanies the alien land monopoly.

All extant approaches support or ignore the facet that is alien, inappropriate and removable; and focus their critique on the facet that is local, natural and unalterable. So it is with sloganeering socialism, pious secularism, Wolfe Tone republicanism, liberal individualism and others.

The protestant marching pageants are vivid enactments of the situation. These marches explicitly celebrate the continuing Williamite land settlement, and, at least implicitly, the consequential continuing dispossession of the catholic proletariat. The respectable, virtuous, landed officer gentlemen lead in front, followed by their trusty enforcers – the proletarian liveried militaristic bandsmen. The drums play the same old simple tunes and convey the same old simple messages – no surrender, not an inch, what we have we hold.

The crucial point is that it is not an inborn malicious supremacism that causes protestant ascendancy. Rather is it an internal protestant egalitarianism and supportiveness that, in the context of land monopoly, necessitates catholic exclusion. Similarly it is a rage for justice that motivates catholic dissent and insurgency. But in the context of land monopoly, this insurgency must needs develop into an inverted ascendancy in any neo-colonialist united Ireland

1916 and Partition

Land and land tenure have always lain at the heart of the national question. The Act of Union of 1801 was enacted by the protestant landed proprietors to copperfasten cross channel military enforcement of their land titles against a developing catholic challenge. Following the Land War, c.1900, most land in the south was transferred to a new neo-colonialist class of catholic landed proprietors. Thereby ‘home rule’ secessionism for the south became essentially non contentious in Britain and throughout Ireland.

The 1916 Rising was thus prompted by a desire specifically to thwart the partition proposals. James Connolly and his colleagues correctly understood that partition would entrench catholic landed proprietorship in the south and protestant landed proprietorship in the north, and poverty and black reaction throughout Ireland. Indeed the future prostration of the Irish proletariat, catholic and protestant, was, at that moment, being presaged on the battlefields of the Great War.

That was why, with their life’s blood, they proclaimed “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland” as well as sovereignty and equal treatment in this, that and everything.

When the partition was enacted, c.1920, the border was drawn where it was, in order to balance the maximising of protestant land holdings against the minimising of possible catholic challenge

In brief, therefore, prior to partition, Irish unity and separatism would have entailed and guaranteed the restoration of the gaelic system of common land tenure. But the partition having been enacted, the subsequent achievement of Irish unity and separatism entailed the prior restoration of the gaelic system on both sides of the border.

The Spires of Ulster

The primary provisions of Bunreacht na hEireann are straightforward land claims. While the British state, in its inimitable way, shows a residual but abiding interest even in southern Irish land with territorial royal titles and insignia, and with a continuing all Ireland participation in its legislature by titled lords of conquered Irish land.

Thus the assertions of differing democratic and national rights and identities, the displaying of flags and emblems, the persistent conflicts over symbolic ‘turf’, the non existence of intercommunity transfers of unimproved land, all show that real land is the real issue at stake.

The religious labels and allegiances of the different clans are most illustrative. God or nature is the creator of all land, of the earth; and religion is the intermediary between god and man. Therefore the contending claims of divine orthodoxy and the competing spires of Ulster, competing to attract the precious spark of creation, re-echo the challenged legitimacy of rival land claims.

The present troubles started in Derry, initially in protest at the undue political influence of its protestant landowners. The electoral gerrymander ended but the troubles did not, suggesting a deeper resentment at the undue conquest derived economic privileges of the same landowners.

In summary therefore, every possible indicator, past or present, tells us that any Ulster settlement that ignores the land would be all at sea from the start, would drift helplessly and soon would sink without trace.

Axe to the Root

The situation in Ulster cries out for an axe to be applied to the root of the conquest. This can best be done by taxing land, urban and rural, until it is virtually free, by rolling back the taxes on labour and capital, by free markets and a minimal state, and by equal exchequer payments to all citizens.

These policies would guarantee permanently full employment, high living standards and an equal shareout of the socially created wealth – privilege – that would otherwise adhere to appropriated land and other monopolies.

This structural equality would minimise the areas of political discretion and control, and hence of political friction. It would root the peace in creation itself, in the indestructible life sustaining powers of the land.

Thus could be reinstituted the gaelic system of common land and result in free land, free markets, free and equal citizens enjoying equal natural rights. Thus could be reinstituted the egalitarian economic basis of clan tribalism. So that citizenship would replace both ascendancy and descendancy, both proletarianism and privilege.

Core of the Separatist Case

These proposals are tailored to fit the local political topography and specific requirements of Ulster. The very fact that Ulster has these specific requirements and topography, and that these are entirely different to Britain’s, is the core of the separatist case.

In the course of being implemented, they would entail a tax, revenue, monetary, economic, administrative and political system quite different and quite separate from Britain.

On both sides of the channel perceptions of the necessity and desirability of a continuing union could only decline. Meanwhile a breaking of the land monopoly in the south and a growing convergence of social systems would mean that, north and south, perceptions of the necessity and desirability of the border would decline.

Pie in the Sky?

Would those proposals gain widespread acceptance or remain pie in the sky? Let us tease out some hopeful points.

They can be introduced by a programme that is largely voluntary .

Those who have differentially borne the brunt of the suffering, the landless of both traditions, would differentially benefit from a general regaining of their natural inheritance.

From a republican point of view, they would initiate the realisation of the 1916 ideal, a realisation that, if the republicans boxed clever, would be inexorable and rapid.

From a protestant perspective, they would end suspicion of ‘concession creep’ and give a precision and a limit to catholic demands.

Quite unlike positive discrimination (‘fair employment’), more individual protestants would benefit than would individual catholics.

It should be recalled that not long into the present troubles, the then protestant political leadership of landed grandees was unceremoniously expropriated by more plebeian voices.

Both religious traditions have produced advocates of like proposals. Thomas Chalmers, a founder of the Free Kirk, was an advocate of free land. Patrick Edward Dove, a vindicator of Scots Presbyterianism, and, in a masterly exposition, Thomas Nulty, bishop of Meath, both put forward essentially identical proposals to those here.

Of course the pertinent question is why such voices have remained so much alone. After all, the ‘good news’ of the eponymous ‘ gospels’ is derived from the communistic Mosaic manifesto delivered by the messiah Jesus at his first public discourse. This was: “Good news to the poor”, “the prisoners”, “the oppressed” (the landless), “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (the equal restoration to all of any alienated land inheritance – the tradition of the jubilee year).

Who knows but that some highly peculiar land titles dating from the year dot may yet be located. Until then we can safely say that land monopoly is anti-god and antichrist and is the antithesis of ‘good news’.

Blind Alleys and Blatherskite

Some people entertain the notion that demographic changes will enable peaceful democratic evolution favourable to catholics to emerge. This notion is a delusion and an illusion.

Should the demographic balance tilt towards catholics there would be, without a shadow of doubt, an unofficial response in the form of an ethnic cleansing pogrom and an official response in the form of a redrawn border. Starting, lets say, with the River Foyle in Derry. ‘The people of Northern Ireland’ will decide matters, we are told. But who decides what Northern Ireland is? And who decides who the people in Northern Ireland are?

‘Pure’ nationalists and indeed ‘pure’ unionists are wont to argue that sovereignty alone is at issue. Were this the case, would the fact that all interests involved have somewhat pooled their sovereignty in the European Union, not have had some relevance on the conflict?

Were sovereignty the only issue, why then would all nationalist parties term themselves ‘socialist’? And why would all without exception exclude the fat of the land from their socialisation proposals? Is not this exclusion precisely the obverse of the objectives of the revered patriots?

Is this not a code for the retention of the conquest derived land monopoly and its transfer to catholic proprietorship? Is this not a ‘cute hoor’ formula for neo-colonialist secession rather than the communistic gaelic separatism of Fintan Lalor, the Fenians, Michael Davitt and the 1916 martyrs?

Nor will any increased application of state socialism help. Not only would such lead to a growing impoverishment as every elsewhere, but in Ulster, stretching the span of political control would entail extending the areas of political conflict. Combining total state monopoly with the autocracy and serfdom of the Russian steppes (leninism, stalinism, trotskyism) would merely combine maximum poverty and repression with maximum blatherskite.

Desperately seeking some enlightenment or involvement from the USA or Europe is another blind alley. Like Britain itself, these countries are individualist societies where land monopoly is king and who have long histories of bellicose land grabbing. So that a neutral and benevolent goodwill is the very best contribution they could ever make.

A New ‘New Departure’

All pressure from official circles on the republican insurgency is for an internal Ulster settlement – the ‘talks process’ being a proto Stormont. But a reconstituted Stormont with the protestant land monopoly intact leaves protestant ascendancy intact.

Apart from the dubious benefit of the right to marry the Prince of Wales, equal rights at law for catholics (‘civil rights’) have been in force since Catholic Emancipation in 1829. So that a settlement that merely guaranteed ‘civil rights’ and the proportionate allocation of ministerial appointments to catholics (‘power sharing’) would effect little change. And would render the heavy sacrifices made by the republican militants to have been unnecessary and valueless.

Meanwhile a second pressure, this time from the grass roots, is for a significant result and against the arriviste respectability of republican precedent. The published sympathy and solidarity notices tell the tale of people who most desperately want the sacrifice of life or liberty, made by their loved ones, not to have been wasted.

The only way these two pressures can be reconciled is by an orientation towards the land of Ireland – as with the ‘new departure ‘ of fenian times.

The previous politico military strategy of attempting to persuade or coerce the British into coercing the protestants into a united Ireland is a total and proven cul de sac. A clean break British withdrawal or indeed a British coerced united Ireland would lead, in the heel of the hunt, to a repartition and to a refreshed ‘carnival of reaction’, north and south. The no war no peace strategy – a recognition of stalemate – can only be an unstable interregnum.

However, a new ‘new departure’ modelled on the fenian precedent would yield a spectacular outcome for the republican insurgency, for Ulster and for Ireland. Another possible outcome, also with republican precedents aplenty, is an outbreak of recriminations, born of disappointment, and of feuding, born of bitterness.

Freedom and Separatism

But as well as an economic strategy, the separatist aim of a united gaelic Ireland needs a complementary political strategy. Just as there is no need to re-invent the wheel, so too the original Sinn Fein strategy of Arthur Griffith can be reworked to suit the situation. This tried and trusty policy was for the elected Irish parliamentarians to abstain from Westminster and participate in Dail Eireann.

The suspension or termination of this actual or projected nationalist participation in the present Dail ‘Eireann’ could then be used as a barter for the suspension or termination of unionist participation.

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