Last week I had a moment to myself and settled down for the evening to watch Django Unchained. It’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. It is very violent. But it is also a powerful anti-racist movie in which the main character challenges slavery and the injustices inflicted on African Americans. When it was over I posted a tweet which included the n-word. My purpose was to draw the parallels between the courage and defiance of Django and the people of my own district during the recent years of conflict. Within minutes I deleted it. I later apologised for using it.
However there were those who then spent the next few days telling me, and anyone else who would listen, that there is no comparison between the plight of African Americans and the Irish. I was accused of misrepresenting the parallels between the campaigns for justice, equality and civil rights for the people of Ireland under colonialism, and in particular of the north post partition, and that of the generations of African Americans who struggled for civil rights in their place.
I take a different view. Ireland was a colonised nation that suffered enormously under centuries of British occupation. The Irish people were dispossessed of our land, forced into poverty and denied our rights as human beings. Whether during the clan wars or the plantations or the Cromwellian invasion Irish people died in their tens of thousands.
Séan O’Callaghan in his excellent book ‘To hell or Barbados – the ethnic cleansing of Ireland’ reminds us that between 1641 and 1652 over half a million Irish were killed by the English out of a small population of several millions, and that 300,000 more were sold as slaves. Under Cromwell in 1649 all captured Irish soldiers were sold as slaves. In 1650 25,000 Irish ‘were sold to planters in St. Kitts. During the 1650’s over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the west Indies, Virginia and New England… Between 1652 and 1659 Cromwell shipped 50,000 Irishmen and Irish women as slaves to the Barbados… The planters began breeding the Irish women because it was profitable. Children of slaves were themselves slaves.’
Callaghan tells us that “The planters had to pay more for a black slave. African slaves cost about 20 to 50 pounds sterling compared to 900 pounds of cotton (about 5 pounds sterling) for an Irish.”
By 1685, nearly 80 percent of all land in Ireland was held by the colonists. The penal laws were designed to crush any sense of Irishness – to destroy our language and culture, and any desire for freedom. Catholics were denied the right to practice their religion; Catholic schools were banned; Catholics could not own a horse worth more than five pounds; they were barred from most professions; were not allowed to live in many of the larger towns; and could not acquire land, and much more.
A hundred years later Irish Catholics owned only 5 percent of the land in the country. As a result, the vast majority of Irish people lived as peasants in abject poverty, frequently facing the trials of famine. The English landlord class and its agents cruelly exploited this situation to maximise their profits. One English writer of the time Arthur Young, in ‘A Tour in Ireland 1780,’ wrote of the condition of the Irish peasant:
“A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invest an order which a servant, labourer or cotter dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submission… Landlords of consequence have assured me, that many of their cottars would think themselves honoured by having their wives or daughters sent for to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people must live.”
And what of the thousands of Irish who were sent to Australia in convict ships in chains? Men, women and children, like David Fay from Dublin who was 11 years old when he arrived in 1791, indentured servants with no way home.
And then there is An Gorta Mór. A million dead. Millions more in poverty. And millions fleeing in coffin ships – some of them former slave ships – across the Atlantic. The people abandoned their mostly one roomed, mud or turf-walled cabins, with their sod roofs, and their small parcels of land. Frederick Douglass, a former slave on the run from slavers in the USA visited Ireland in 1845 and noted that in the conditions of those working the land for the British landlord class there was “much here to remind me of my former condition.”
Subsequently partition created two conservative, mean spirited states on the island.
The unionist regime that controlled the northern state especially depended upon the gerrymandering of local electoral boundaries, restrictions on the right to vote and the imposition of a permanent state of emergency. Discrimination in employment and housing was endemic. It was an apartheid state.
It was little wonder that Vorster, the South African Minister for Justice in the apartheid regime, while introducing a new coercion bill in 1963 commented that he would “exchange all the legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.”
In January 1967 I participated in the meeting that formally established the Civil Rights Association. It was inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement and consciously fashioned itself on it. Irish rights activists identified with the plight of African Americans. We each were denied the right to vote; we each were discriminated against in employment and housing; and we each had to endure the physical and legislative oppression of special laws that banned music and literature and newspapers and peaceful protests.
The orange state reacted violently to the civil rights movement. It employed the RUC and its armed militia the B Specials to suppress peaceful demonstrations. What is the difference between the attacks on black civil rights marchers walking to Selma and white civil rights marchers walking to Derry? What’s the difference between images of RUC officers armed with batons attacking civil rights marchers at Duke Street in Derry in 1968 and on other marches across the north, and police in the southern states of the USA attacking civil rights campaigners there? What is the difference between African Americans being killed because of their colour or 11 people in Ballymurphy being shot dead by British troops because they were Irish and nationalist?
There is none. The struggle in Ireland is about rights. The civil rights struggle in the USA was about rights. The struggles in many other places around the globe are about rights. Sharing in solidarity is what we do. Republicans are internationalists and we are proud of this.
Frederick Douglass’s four months in Ireland in 1845 brought home to him the awfulness of colonialism and reinforced the need for the abolition of slavery and oppression. In a world today in which there are an estimated 20 million slaves we share his goal.