Harland & Wolff - A Potent Symbol Of Unionism In Terminal Decline

On August 5th, 2019 Harland and Wolff went into administration after almost 160 years of continuous operations in Belfast. Many column inches were subsequently filled with regurgitated pap about the building of The Titanic, the iconic yellow cranes that dominate the Belfast skyline and a generally sanitised history of the shipyard.

For their part, the workers and the trade unions rightly called for the nationalisation of the company - a call that will almost certainly be ignored by a Thatcher-channeling Boris Johnson.

In the month since the closure it has been reported that the administrators are considering a number of offers for the company. These offers appears to relate to the possible future manufacturing of wind turbines and other renewable energy technology, which has been the core business of Harland and Wolff for the best part of the last decade. The fate of the once mighty shipyard, and the valuable lands upon which it stands, will soon be decided by the stroke of an accountant’s pen.

Wind turbines, not ships, have been the core business of Harland and Wolff for a number of years.

Wind turbines, not ships, have been the core business of Harland and Wolff for a number of years.

Regardless of what that final decision will be, the placing of Harland and Wolff into administration has huge symbolic importance in the context of the slow gradual death of unionism as a political force in Ireland - a process which cannot be understood or judged in the timescale of months, years or even decades. Instead it must be measured in quarter, half and full centuries.

The roots of today’s unionism lie in the brutal plantation of Ulster, which began in 1606 and continued for several decades. It was the last, the largest and the most successful of the British plantations of Ireland.

From the outset, it was designed to replace the indigenous catholic, Irish-speaking population with one that was protestant, English speaking and loyal to the British crown. By the time that Cromwell’s murderous New Model Army had finished their work in the 1650s, all of the land that had once been owned by the native Irish was in the hands of Scottish and English planters.

The flow of planters into Ulster continued long after the indigenous population had been usurped, with an estimated 110,000 planters arriving from England and Scotland between 1650 and 1720.

The plantation of Ulster was propelled on an increasingly virulent wave of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic propaganda. The native Irish were variously portrayed as lazy, untrustworthy, disloyal, dangerous, stupid and even sub-human. The seizing of land from the feckless Irish was portrayed as a just and noble act that had the blessing of God.

Over time these lies were repeated so often they morphed into a form of foundation myth for Unionism - a narrative that told of noble frontiersmen battling against the native savages to bring civilisation to Ireland. This foundation myth spawned a unionist ideology that is defined by conquest, suppression, supremacy and triumphalism - an ideological outlook that projects supreme confidence but lives in permanent fear of a native resurgence and abandonment by London.

A mural on the Shankill Road from circa 2009. The quotes attributed to Cromwell reinforce the foundation myth of modern day unionism.

A mural on the Shankill Road from circa 2009. The quotes attributed to Cromwell reinforce the foundation myth of modern day unionism.

In truth, the conquest and plantation of Ireland was driven by something much more earthly then the divine will of some God. That something was material gain in the form of land and the wealth that flowed from it. At its simplest, those who were loyal to the crown were rewarded with the land of those who were not.

The century that followed the plantation of Ulster and the Cromwellian conquests could arguably be considered the zenith for British control of Ireland. The old Gaelic social order has been decimated and the indigenous Irish were strangers in their own land, without the military, economic or political strength to mount any form of effective challenge to the all-powerful coloniser.

It was late into the 18th century before resistance to British domination of Ireland gained meaningful traction again. The rallying point was not the restoration of the ancien regime that departed with the Flight of the Earls, but the creation of an entirely new non-sectarian order in the form of an Irish Republic.

This new ideology sought to unite catholic, protestant and dissenter within a new egalitarian political framework. The contrast with the religious and class-based British caste system could not have been greater.

The 1798 Rebellion and the Act of Union that followed it marked an historic turning point in Irish history. All of Ireland was now to be ruled directly from London, without the input of a devolved parliament in Dublin. The population was forever more to be defined in terms of those who supported partial or total Irish freedom and those ‘unionists’ who opposed it.

The United Irishmen - Equality - It is new strung and shall be heard

The United Irishmen - Equality - It is new strung and shall be heard

The Act of Union was unable to quell the growing demand for Irish freedom. Nor could the genocide of the 1840s. By the turn of the twentieth century the writing was on the wall for British control of all of Ireland.

Catholic emancipation, land agitation, shifting demographics, an awakening national consciousness, diligent political organisation and a myriad of other factors had undermined the political and economic hegemony of the protestant ascendancy, of unionism and of British rule.

The more perceptive of unionist leaders realised that the long-feared native resurgence was set to overwhelm them and potentially take all of Ireland out of their beloved union. Their solution was simple - secure the partition of Ireland through the threat, or reality, of armed rebellion against their own government.

The Six Counties were selected for inclusion in the new northern state because it was believed that they would have a permanent unionist majority. The remaining three counties of Ulster were left out because they would have tipped the sectarian head-count in the wrong direction.

But economics also played a role in determining where the precise line of the border would be drawn.

Almost uniquely in Ireland, the Six Counties in general and Belfast in particular, had developed a significant industrial base. The process of industrialisation had begun just a century after the Cromwellian conquest with the production of linen in the mid eighteenth century.

Belfast and Derry eventually became global centres for the production of textiles, while iron foundries produced the raw materials for a a burgeoning engineering sector. Other smaller scale industrial activities like rope making, sugar refining, whiskey distilling and tobacco processing added additional wealth to the economy.

The jewel in the crown of this industrial base was Harland and Wolff, which employed tens of thousands of workers to produce the largest ships in the world, including the simultaneous construction of both Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic

Titanic under construction in Harland and Wolff

Titanic under construction in Harland and Wolff

At the time of partition the Six Counties was producing 80% of all industrial output in Ireland. An advanced, productive agricultural sector added additional economic wealth to the Six County economy. The relative economic strength of the Six Counties resulted in Belfast having the largest population and economy of any city in Ireland, including Dublin.

From its foundation the Six County state was designed as a unionist state for a unionist people. Sectarian discrimination was weaved into the very fibre of the state. Electoral boundaries were gerrymandered and voting rights were restricted to ensure minimal nationalist input into local government and the Stormont parliament. The booming, unionist-controlled economy was also used as a tool of political and social control.

Private sector employers, who were overwhelmingly unionist, continued to give preferential treatment to their ‘own’ workers, while those from the nationalist community were either refused employment or given lower-paid, less secure jobs. Public sector jobs in the civil and public services were similarly reserved for those from the unionist community. The oversized and strategically important Royal Ulster Constabulary was, of course, overwhelmingly drawn from the unionist community.

Unionists were also given preference in accessing housing and other public services, giving them further material advantage over their nationalist neighbours.

The Orange Order, an inherently sectarian organisation, provided the social glue to unite protestant bosses, urban workers, landlords, aristocrats and rural labourers in an unnatural alliance. Industrial conflict was thus largely avoided as the population divided along sectarian instead of class lines.

During ‘normal’ times the Six County state was a cold house for catholics and nationalists. During times of crisis, catholics were subject to increased dangers, including pogroms and lethal attacks. And so it continued for half a century after partition.

For their part successive British governments largely left the Stormont regime to its own devices. The existence of an apartheid statelet within the wider British state was deemed an acceptable price to pay for the maintenance of a British foothold in Ireland.


The Six Counties has undergone profound political, social, cultural and economic changes since the Civil Rights campaign began in 1968. Virtually all of this change has been detrimental to unionism as a political force, and by extension detrimental to the grip of the British state on the Six Counties.

The role that shifting demographics and political agitation have played in this weakening of unionism has been well documented. Far less attention has been paid to another key driver in the demise of unionism - the end of unionist control of the Six County economy.

Much of the old unionist-controlled economy was based on heavy industry and manufacturing - sectors which have been decimated by the same process of de-industrialisation that laid waste to much of the North of England and the ‘rust belt’ in the United States of America.

Large numbers of unionist controlled industrial and manufacturing businesses of all sizes from the micro to massive, like Harland and Wolff, have closed. The days of unionist workers, particularly working-class workers, being guaranteed secure, well-paid industrial or manufacturing jobs are largely gone because the jobs themselves are gone.

The second process that has been at play is a general, but not complete, de-sectarianisation of the workplace. Many of the largest employers in the Six Counties are now part of multinational operations that are not headquartered in the Six Counties or owned by people with strong links to unionism. Businesses that simply have no skin in the unionist game or interest in sectarian employment practices.

In the public sector large state and semi-state employers are no longer under the direct control of a unionist-dominated Stormont. Areas which had were once bastions of unionism including the civil service, public service, the legal profession and policing now have significant numbers of non-unionists working within them.

Bigoted employers who still wish to employ on the basis of religion or political affiliation find it difficult to do so because of strict anti-sectarian workplace legislation that has been introduced in recent decades.

Tesco is now the largest employer in the Six Counties, reflecting the changed nature of the Six County economy.

Tesco is now the largest employer in the Six Counties, reflecting the changed nature of the Six County economy.

The net effect of these processes has seen the makeup of the Six County workforce change dramatically. In recent years the number of ‘protestants’ in the workforce has dropped below 50% for the first time since partition.

Workplace research from 2017 showed that the number of workers defining themselves as ‘protestant’ had dropped to just 42%, while the equivalent figure for ‘catholic’ was 41%. Those self-described as ‘other / non-determined’ stood at 17%.

The demise of a vibrant unionist-controlled economy has removed a key material benefit of being a unionist - namely preferential access to employment. And the de facto end of the ‘protestant state for a protestant people’ has largely removed other material benefits, such as preferential access to housing, education and other public services.

The slow, gradual demise of Britain’s grip on Ireland is undeniable. From absolute domination of all the entire country in the 1750s to loosing control of the Twenty-Six Counties in 1922. And from total political, economic, social and cultural control of the Six Counties in 1922 to the situation today, where the constitutional future of the Six Counties is up for grabs.

The basis of British control of the Six Counties relies almost entirely on the basis of unionism being a strong, coherent political force with the majority support of the population. Without such a unionist base, the British claim on Ireland will become utterly untenable.

The material basis for unionism is all but gone. The political-economic-religious-social construct that allowed one section of the population to gain significant economic advantage over the rest of the population is in the end stages of a centuries long terminal decline.

This reality has not happened by accident or because of a new enlightenment with unionism. In fact the largest party of unionism, the Democratic Unionist Party, remains a highly-regressive political-religious hybrid with one foot firmly in the seventeenth century.

The decline of unionism has been driven by the glacial movement of demographics and centuries of struggle by republicans, socialists, nationalists and other progressive forces.

Bobby Sands, the sacrifice of thousands of republican activists and others exposed the contradiction of the Six County state, unleashing political forces that have the potential to deliver a new all-Ireland republic.

Bobby Sands, the sacrifice of thousands of republican activists and others exposed the contradiction of the Six County state, unleashing political forces that have the potential to deliver a new all-Ireland republic.

At the time of partition 80% of all Irish industrial output came from the Six Counties. Today the Twenty-Six County state exports goods and services valued at €280bn. The equivalent figure for the Six Counties is just €10bn. In other words the Six Counties now exports just 3.6% of the good and services that leave the southern state.

Average wages south of the border are now about €38,000, compared to just €28,000 in the Six Counties. The overall population of the Six Counties has increased by just 50% since 1921.

In 1961 the population of the Six Counties was 1.42 million, to a figure of 2.8 million in the Twenty-Six Counties. Since then the population of the Six Counties has increased by less than 500,000, while the population of the Twenty Six Counties has increased by over 2,000,000.

Belfast had a greater population than Dublin a century ago. Now Dublin now has a population of 1.4 million people, while the entire Six Counties has less than 1.9 million.

Of course, these figures mask the deep inequalities and exploitation of the capitalist economies that exist in both states. But within the level playing field of two capitalist systems they are useful indicators of how both states have developed since partition.

For many decades, it was argued that the relative poverty of the southern state gave them cause those living in the Six Counties to reject reunification. People would not vote against their own material interests, the argument went. Now the same logic can be applied in reverse.

Multiple economic studies conclude that the synergies created by Irish re-unification would create a stronger economy than the sum of the two existing economies - an outcome that would improve average incomes across all of Ireland.

From an economic powerhouse at the time of partition, the Six Counties is now one of the poorest regions in Western Europe. Partition has made the Six Counties an economic and political backwater within the wider British state.

From an economic powerhouse at the time of partition, the Six Counties is now one of the poorest regions in Western Europe. Partition has made the Six Counties an economic and political backwater within the wider British state.

The demise of the unionist-controlled economy will not bring about Irish re-unification on its own; nor will the deconstruction of the Six County apartheid state on its own; nor will the demographic shift in favour of catholics on its own; nor will a strong Twenty-Six County economy on its own; nor will the social liberalisation of the Twenty Six County on its own; nor will the wider constitutional crisis with the British state, including Brexit, on its own.

But the cumulative effect of all of these factors means that the possibility of a united, independent Ireland is now more likely than it has been in centuries.

Republican values of equality, secularism, tolerance and liberty have gained widespread support to levels that were unthinkable at the time of partition. The two sectarian states that were created at that time have been largely deconstructed, further paving the way for the creation of a unified, secular state that would afford equality to those of all religions and of none. And unionism as a political force is weakening with every passing decade.

The dynamics of unionism matter because the bogus British claim of jurisdiction over the Six Counties is utterly dependent upon the strength of Irish unionism. Once support for the union drops below the point of majority, Britain’s claim on Ireland will become totally untenable.

Those who want to see a united, independent Ireland have an historic duty to develop strategies for reunification that are based on the objective conditions of struggle that exist in Ireland today.

Those strategies must focus on finding the fastest possible route to a British withdrawal from Ireland, which in today’s conditions of struggle means maximising support for reunification within all communities in both states. A popular, peaceful, inclusive wave of support for Irish reunification must be built across Ireland and beyond if the possibility of re-unification is to be made a reality.

Strategies that are based on the conditions of struggle that no longer exist are not only ineffective but counter-productive.

Those who want to see not only a united Ireland, but also a radically different economic system and social order must seize the opportunities that future constitutional change will bring. History has shown that opportunities of this type are extremely rare and must, therefore, not be squandered or dominated by the forces of economic and political conservatism.

For our part we in Éirígí For A New Republic are committed to building maximum support for a New all-Ireland Republic that will deliver equality and justice for all through the creation of a democratically-controlled and environmentally sustainable economy. If you like the sounds of that, get in touch today.