‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, reviewed – Part 3

Daniel Finn records that the British Army identified the summer of 1972 as the crucial turning point, as the moment when republican guerrillas shifted from ‘insurgency’ to ‘terrorism’.

Most immediately this was the result of the removal of the no-go areas and saturation of Catholic areas by the British Army and RUC.  The number of deaths peaked in 1972, while the ability of the IRA to inflict casualties on the British declined dramatically thereafter.  The Provisional leadership however continued to declare victory – ‘we are in sight of a British declaration of intent to withdraw.’

In the following period, between 1972 and 1976, loyalist paramilitaries killed 567 people in an effort to terrorise the Catholic population, and the IRA was unable to stop them.  Its efforts at retaliation often meant killing Protestants uninvolved in loyalism and by the end of the IRA campaign loyalists had begun killing more than republicans, assisted in no small part by the British State.

This was an underappreciated aspect of the Ulsterisation process by which the British were able to distance themselves from direct responsibility for repression while seeking to de-politicise the conflict.  Facing a decline in mass political activity, the Provisional IRA continued its more isolated campaign, now carried out by a much-reduced IRA organised less openly in a cellular structure, and by this fact more separated from the population it sprung from.  The British Army took a back seat, the RUC and locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment came to the fore, and the British embarked on a policy of refusing the political character of the conflict by treating republican prisoners as common criminals.

All this followed the downfall of the Unionist regime at Stormont and the failure of the major British political initiative of a power-sharing Executive, which was brought down by a strike of Protestant workers, the success of which relied not only on a great deal of support but also on a lot of paramilitary intimidation and British Army acceptance of it.  The latter was not about to embark on a conflict on two fronts.

The Provisionals now had enough support to maintain an armed campaign, but their periodic killing of civilians repelled many in the Catholic population ensuring they could only remain a political minority within it.  The political stalemate that resulted after 1974 and the loyalist strike that year was thus a product not just of the IRA but of loyalist intransigence.  The British were not going to challenge the latter on behalf of the former.

So, the British Army evaluation of the importance of 1972 is correct, not only in terms of how the IRA conducted itself but in terms of the overall political dynamic and the health of the movement against the Northern State.  The policy of Ulsterisation, increased role of loyalism, and decline in mass political activity among the Catholic population all reflected something more fundamental – that the struggle of the Catholic minority could not achieve an end to the Northern state and bring about a united Ireland.

This is a point I made at the Belfast launch of the book.  Once Stormont was ‘smashed’ the positive political solution favoured by the Catholic population could not be imposed, while the Provisionals believed that it could.  Since this reality impinged even on them, they shifted from predicting near-time victory to the perspective of a long war.  This became a more and more pointless campaign that degenerated into further mistakes, inclusion of more targets considered to be legitimate, and such state penetration of their organisation that one of those in charge of rooting it out was a state agent.

Finn quotes from the Peoples Democracy newspaper in October 1971, which showed that this was understood by some even before the full set of circumstances that would bring it about had come to pass.  The article suggested that “while the Provos were determined to keep fighting until Irish unity was achieved, in practice much of the Catholic support would evaporate – and probably many of the Volunteers would be satisfied – if the internees were released, Stormont smashed and the British Army removed.”  But the Provos were determined to fight for more, while declaring imminent victory for a number of years.

As the second half of the 70s wore on it became clearer to the Provisional leadership that their armed struggle would not win, or at least not by itself.  Finn recognises the speech by Jimmy Drumm in 1977, written by Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison, as the opening of a more political approach, which warned that the “isolation of socialist republicans around armed struggle was dangerous.”

It was seen at the time as signalling of a move to the left and a recognition of the importance of political struggle.  It might thus be seen as the adoption by the Provisionals of their own left, or socialist, republicanism that most republican organisations have felt compelled to adopt at some stage.

Finn sets out the experience of an experiment in this left republicanism that came to the fore two years earlier in a split within the Officials, and which gave birth to the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP).

This reflected the views of many in the Official Republican Movement unhappy with the ceasefire and unhappy with its growing reformism.  The split provided a potential rallying point for the left outside the republican tradition but the determination of those leading the split that political direction would be determined by the armed wing of the movement meant that the primacy of the armed struggle would be reasserted. This necessarily entailed the irrelevance of democracy in the political wing – decisions would be taken elsewhere.

The Officials were determined to strangle the capacity of the splitters from birth and the IRSP entered the world in the midst of a bloody feud.  This, and what Finn describes as the weakness of the political leadership that survived the feud, meant that the IRSP/ Irish National Liberation Army degenerated into an aggressive militarism that robbed it of any potential it might have had.

The left republicanism developed by the Provisionals was much different but no better.  It was to be tested by the hunger strikes three years later, which pushed the Provos into a mass, open campaign and which, had the turn to the left had any depth, would have been the catalyst for the opening up of the movement and an orientation to the whole working class and its movement.

Instead a fight had to be waged even for democratic functioning and the basics of political organisation such as participation in elections.  Secret negotiations behind the backs of those engaged in the struggle continued to be a central feature of Provisional practice with a top-down view of political leadership that was never to change. The lessons learned by the leadership after the campaign were that a united front should be dismissed, elections should be the property of Sinn Fein only and (after a short period) that the strategic way forward was nationalist unity.  The armed struggle was meanwhile reinvigorated by a new cohort of recruits and supply of arms.  The failing campaign was given more time in which to fail.

By 1983 Gerry Adams was warning of ‘ultra-leftism’ and the danger of breaking up “the unity of the national independence movement by putting forward “socialist” demands that had no possibility of being achieved until real independence is won.”  The old ‘labour must wait’ cry was proclaimed by Irish republicanism once again.  Finn also notes that Adams quoted Desmond Greaves in support of this approach, the same inspiration to those who had sought to guide the Goulding Officials a couple of decades earlier.

The remaining chapters record the long political striptease of political principles that was the Irish peace process.  The Provisionals were rewarded for their abandonment of their armed struggle with majority electoral support in the Catholic population that had always opposed it.

Finn presents a well-judged summary of this process which has now gone on longer than the war the Provisionals saw as their own.  Sinn Fein then began to claim that this war had not been about ‘Brits Out’ but about equality – the goal of the original civil rights movement that the Provisionals had seen as so inadequate.

Finn quotes Adams saying that equality of treatment would erode the very reason for the existence of the state but what the limits (if any) of such equal treatment would be, what its political effects would be and how republicans would take the leadership of such dynamics were not discussed.  The Officials had seen such progress as a means to unite Catholic and Protestant workers while the Provisionals drew a rather straighter line to unity of the two Irish states.

What was eventually agreed was a political settlement that Sinn Fein saw as the embodiment of equality but was in reality a sectarian carve-up that replaced civil rights for all with rights ascribed to, and the property of, sectarian groups.   Equality was not to be the route to removing sectarian difference, but equal recognition given to the differences and their continuing protection.  This took the language of ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘equality of the two traditions.’

Finn also judges well that the ‘dissidents’ policy of a new armed campaign did not challenge the Provisionals project.  In fact, by reminding everyone of its previous policy it strengthened the new one by seeming to affirm that the only alternative to it was pointless political violence.

Finn’s history prompts the question why the left was not able to capture the leadership of the struggle for civil rights and its continued development in the period up to 1972.

Part of the reason is that it was starting from a very weak position – sectarian division really did pose an enormous obstacle to the growth of socialism and socialist consciousness in both the Catholic and Protestant working class.  This weakness also existed in the South, robbing the left of the possibility of showing the concrete benefits of working-class unity on the whole island.

Immediately this mean that the necessity for physical defence of workers from large scale physical attack could not be influenced by political considerations of mass self-activity and non-sectarianism that socialist could bring to the early defence committees.  The left did not have the weight inside the Catholic areas from which the early committees had sprung.

Republicanism also provided the means for armed defence, which was on occasion required, and the left did not have this capacity.  Had it such capacity it might have provided a model for the subordination of armed activity to the democratic political debate of a working class party and its supporters.  The absence of an armed capacity subordinated to socialist politics meant that the false promises of victory through an offensive armed campaign, which was attractive to Catholic youth, was not challenged, or at least an alternative model for the role of arms was not available.  There was, in summary, no tradition of alternative political organisation.

These weaknesses were reflected in some confusion of perspective by the left in this period and some authors today mistake the reflection for the primary cause.  It was not this confusion that was primarily responsible for the weakness of the left but the weakness of the left, or rather of the working class as a political class, that was primarily responsible for the confusion.

The Catholic working class never developed a left leadership because it never developed beyond a nationalist political identity and a political understanding of its circumstances based on it, in turn the product of forces too strong for it to defeat.  The most militant advocates of such nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, won the most ardent youth while the limits of its militancy meant republicanism never went further that nationalist ideas.

We could all have done better, which would have meant being in a stronger position today to advocate socialist politics.  It is to Finn’s credit that his book provides a valuable summary of the political struggle from which we can derive lessons for the future.  The book is to be recommended.

Concluded

Back to part 2

‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, reviewed – Part 2

‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, Daniel Finn, Verso 2019

Daniel Finn records that at the beginning of the ‘Troubles’ Belfast Official IRA leader, Billy McMillen expressed awareness that the use of arms might only drag the IRA into a battle it could not win against a vastly superior army.  His Chief of Staff Goulding also argued that this had been the situation in Derry when the Bogside had been attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  Gerry Adams also recalled opposing armed action later for similar reasons.

How much this last view was due to long-term strategic considerations and not simply the IRA’s lack of guns; need for a period of preparation for the offensive war the Provisionals intended; and a consideration that British repression would radicalise support for it, is probably best answered by subsequent actions.  Finn quotes Provisional leader Seán Mac Stíofáin as saying “the armed struggle comes first and then you politicise.”

A related argument has also been put that while the Officials saw a role for a primarily defensive use of arms, and the Provisionals an offensive war, there is in reality no difference – there is no such thing as a ‘defensive’ bomb.  Eamonn McCann, in his book ‘War and an Irish Town’, once argued something similar – “When it is the state itself which threatens to destroy you it is necessary to attack the state, not just to defend oneself against its attacks . . .”

It would however, overturn much military thinking to believe that there is no difference between defence and attack, and there really is no logic in believing that attacking a much better armed enemy is the only way to defend yourself.  When the Provisionals were to go on to claim that civilian casualties of their car bombs were due to the British not acting quickly enough to evacuate civilians it didn’t stop them planting more of them, even though the political as well as the human cost was obvious.  Only commitment to the idea of victory through armed struggle – an offensive war – could sustain such a view.

Finn quotes the Official’s paper the ‘United Irishman’ stating at the end of 1971 that mass participation had ‘brought the struggle of the people to a new height’, and the view of the Joint Intelligence Committee at Westminster that this was ‘perhaps the most threatening feature of the present situation in Northern Ireland.’ But while the level of mass struggle was to rise to an even greater level in 1972 it was also to fall within the year.

Bloody Friday, demonstrated the relationship between mass political action and armed struggle.  Six months after Bloody Sunday, the Provisionals set off twenty-one bombs in Belfast City centre, killing seven civilians and two British soldiers.  Television news showed body parts being shovelled off the street.  The effect of the bombing gave the political initiative to the British state to destroy the no-go areas from which the repressive arms of the state had previously been excluded.  The relationship of armed force between the IRA and British Army hadn’t changed but the political situation had, and it became apparent that it was the people who were protecting the IRA and not the other way round.  After all, what else is meant by a guerrilla movement and the people being like a fish swimming through water?

The real political tragedy of Irish republicanism in this whole period of the Troubles and ‘peace process’ was not the collapse of the Provisionals into an alliance with bourgeois nationalism and the Irish State, but the failure of the initiative within the Officials to develop a healthy socialist politics.  This was never seriously attempted by the Provisionals, whose sometime left wing rhetoric disguised a rightward trajectory.  As one of my comrades in Peoples Democracy once put it: the Provos were full of people with left wing opinions and right-wing politics.  It is possible to think of individuals for whom such a judgement would be harsh, but then, we are thinking of individuals.

Apologists for the repressive actions of the British Army during the early 1970s complain that they were ill-suited to the peace-keeping role that they were thrown into, although ‘humanitarian imperialism’ has been the rationale for such intervention ever since.  But the same could be said of the IRA, both Officials and Provisionals.

The Officials wondered what to do with their new members, as recruitment surged after internment, later noting that they “had been drawn into a war that was not of our choosing.”  They therefore withdrew, calling a ceasefire in May 1972, making it easier and more comfortable to also continue to withdraw into reformist politics that morphed into defence of the Northern State and pathological hatred of the Provisionals.

Unfortunately, for these Provisionals this only reinforced the identification of revolutionary politics with armed struggle.  The later abandonment of that struggle by the Provisionals taught the same lesson to those now dubbed republican dissidents.  To state that the failure to understand that abandonment of armed struggle was due to the prior politics developed by these movements is not enough, because for these organisations complete commitment to armed struggle guarantees their revolutionary purity.

What matters is to recognise that the republican armed struggle perpetually leads to failure, even with respect to its own limited goals.  It is not in principle incompatible with reformist political objectives, and is not compatible with the struggle for socialism.  When we say this, it does not mean rejection of physical force as such, but only that such force must be the weapon of a class not an army.  The social revolution sought by socialists requires the revolution of social relations and not transplanting one capitalist state by another.  The class that is to achieve this must defend itself, but this is a far cry from guerrilla warfare, which is in general not suited to advanced capitalist societies.  The North of Ireland is proof of this, a proof hammered home again and again over many years.

The Provisionals had the same problem as the Officials, but responded by taking a radically different direction.  They too were flooded with new recruits after internment and Bloody Sunday and were seriously misled in an abortive truce in June 1972, almost a month after the Official IRA ceasefire.  This involved meetings with the British, which like all later negotiations by the movement were held in secret – the struggle was theirs to negotiate, not the people, and not even their own members.

The Provisional leadership demanded a British commitment to withdrawal by the end of 1974, which was an objective they were never going to get, then or afterwards.  When the truce broke down Finn accurately observes that “having failed to achieve their maximum goals, the Provos had little alternative but to return to war, since the movement had no political wing that could advance their agenda in the absence of a military campaign.”

The Provisional IRA became the hammer for which every problem is a nail.   While the British Army learned lessons relatively quickly about the failure of its military solution, the Provisional IRA simply repeated the attempt. As Finn records, the British Army’s history of its operations picked out two examples of ‘poor military decision-making’ in the Troubles that had ‘serious operational and even strategic consequences’ – the Falls curfew and Bloody Sunday.  They stopped making these mistakes, even if they didn’t stop being responsible for hundreds of further killings.

Back to part 1

‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, reviewed – Part 1

‘One Man’s Terrorist. A Political History of the IRA’, Daniel Finn, Verso 2019

There have been a number of books on the history of the IRA and as the author of this book has noted, per capita, Northern Ireland is possibly the most academically analysed society of any in the world.  At the book launch in Belfast he was asked by Matt Collins, People before Profit councillor in Belfast, why he had written another.

Finn pointed out that a number had been written some time ago, around the late 90s and early 2000’s and that distance had allowed a new evaluation of what had happened. The passage of time also allowed access to some government papers, which allow a more honest presentation of the views of the British government than its public declarations, which were mainly ritualistic denunciations of terrorism or carefully scripted statements designed to achieve particular political purposes.

The history, essentially of the modern IRA, begins in the late 1960s, which is now half a century ago, but well within the living memory of many of those involved.  Finn also has distance because he is from the South – while the main struggle reviewed was in the North – but was able to make contacts with those engaged in the political activity covered in the book.

The book is also a political history, while the others have mostly been essentially military histories with political background, and with much of their value residing in new information about what was, after all, a secret organisation.

The primary value of this book therefore that it is a political history.  Not only that, but its scope is wider than those books that have dealt solely with the Provisional IRA.  It builds its understanding of the Provisional movement not just from its own actions and statements but from within a broader canvas of the wider political struggle.  He engages not just with the Provisionals but valuably looks at the political perspectives of the Official Republican Movement and of Peoples Democracy.

As I noted in my contribution to the discussion at the Belfast launch, the history of this period is either presented as one of barely interrupted political violence by the IRA fighting the counter-insurgency of the state, or of an anti-imperialist struggle whose only real actor was the Provisionals; as if no one else ever mattered or provided a different way forward.  The book is therefore extremely useful in demonstrating that this was far from the case.

It sets the scene in an interesting introduction to the modern period with a history of republicanism and wider situation up to the explosion onto the streets of the civil rights movement in 1968.  He notes the re-evaluation of strategy by the IRA following its abysmal failure in the border campaign that spluttered out to defeat in 1962, and records it’s new leader, Cathal Goulding, describing it not so much as a guerrilla movement moving through its people like a fish in water, but more ‘like a fish through a desert.’

However, in my view, the author does not make enough of the radical change in republican objectives that occurred decades before, which moved from seeking to overthrow the Free State to de facto and then de jure acceptance.  The foundational acceptance of the legitimacy of one partitioned state was clearly a result of a purely nationalist politics that had no alternative to the separate Irish State, which over a couple of decades achieved as much political independence as could ever have been expected.

Since the republican movement, even Goulding’s IRA at this point, still saw the armed struggle as the key, this meant their opposition to the southern partitioned state could only be platonic.  This imposed a fatal weakness that led to repeated incorporation of the militant opposition of fractions of republicanism into that state; beginning with the pro-Treaty ancestors of today’s Fine Gael, then Fianna Fail, then Clann na Poblachta and later the Provisional IRA, which dropped its militant opposition to the Northern State through an alliance with the political forces of the Southern State and the fatal charms of nationalist unity.  Now assumed and taken for granted, it bears on all republicans today, pro and anti-peace process.

Finn explains the development of the thinking of the new Goulding IRA leadership with its view that political agitation must play a more prominent role in IRA activity and its belief that achievement of civil rights would assist democratisation of the Northern State.   In this scenario a second stage would facilitate class politics, which would come to the fore and would make possible dissolution of the border and establishment of an all-Ireland worker’s republic.  This strategy and that of others has been the subject of a series of posts on this blog looking at the history of the civil rights movement and beginning of the ‘Troubles’, beginning here.

For this reader the chapters dealing with the years up to the late 70s are the most interesting, since these deal with the political perspectives of the various organisations and their activities when the struggle against the Unionist regime and the British State had a mass character and wasn’t, and couldn’t be, simply dismissed as a violent conspiracy by a small number of evil men.

This period includes the growth of the civil rights movement to a mass campaign; the pitched battles between Catholic workers and the sectarian state forces; the sectarian division of much of Belfast; British repression including the Falls curfew, internment and Bloody Sunday; and the overthrow of Stormont.  This was when real advances were achieved and the mass movement won significant victories against an attempted British military solution.

These victories ultimately brought about, and included, the downfall of the Unionist Stormont regime.  As I also argued at the book launch, this then led to a struggle for an objective that the movement could not achieve – the defeat of British rule entirely and a united Ireland of some sort.  Within the potential of a struggle confined to the North it was not possible to achieve this and as we have seen, republicanism had no perspective or strategy for overthrowing the Southern partitioned state.

Before looking at the evidence that Finn provides for such a conclusion, we should recognise something else also taken for granted in most reflections on the history of republicanism.  Because of the more or less rapid demise of the Official Republican movement and its complete eclipse by the Provisionals, the importance of the split in the movement in 1969/70 is not appreciated.

Militant republicanism was a minority tendency within the Catholic population, which itself was a minority.  To think that a split in this minority could leave either side with the potential to achieve their stated goals was at best an illusion.  More objectively the split exacerbated the worst tendencies of both.  For the Provisionals, it confirmed their militarism and disregard for politics as a whole, never mind a debate on what sort of politics was needed.  For the Officials it initially created a competition with the Provisionals for armed initiatives, created a bitter and personalised division, and hardened the weakest and most rotten aspects of their increasingly Stalinist and reformist politics.  While they sought to address necessary questions that the Provisionals were simply not interested in, they came out with the wrong answers.

Forward to part 2

Saying yes to Jeremy – part 2

Brexit and any step forward by the working class in Britain are incompatible.  So what attitude do we take to a party that promises both?  Up until now the way forward was to fight for the Labour Parry to be democratised so that its Remain supporting membership, backed by the majority of Labour voters, could impose a progressive Remain policy on the leadership.  This had to be done irrespective of the Jeremey Corbyn leadership.  In other words, it was a gulp, and then ‘No, Jeremy’.

Failure to see this or to carry it to success, for whatever reason, now means that we have to face a Labour Party of MPs who don’t support Corbyn, especially any progressive policies he stands for, and are no more likely to force a radical agenda in Parliament if the Party won a majority than they were under Blair.  On the other hand, if the Party lost the election badly, Corbyn would be finished and there would be an almighty push to finish any progressive element of the Corbyn project with him.

This is one reason why socialists and working people more generally should call for a vote for Labour, because it provides better grounds on which to fight for socialism, inside the party and outwith it.

Even if the Party won, of course the fight to get the parliamentary party to take the action it needs to take to implement any sort of radical agenda would remain.  The Party would also still be run by a Brexit-supporting apparatus that would deliver up either an unsustainable Brexit or simply more years of political paralysis and crisis.  If so permitted, in either eventuality the Party would suffer, and especially the leadership that delivered either of these outcomes.  It would be better that the Tories bear responsibility for Brexit than it be implemented by Labour, although this means only that we should fight for Labour to adopt a socialist policy on Brexit, not leave it to the Tories.

A socialist policy would not simply mean opposition and support for Remain.  It would mean taking advantage of EU membership to organise on a pan-European basis, trying to win support for the social democratic policies that are currently put forward only within national limits but can only be implemented, at the very least, on a European level.  Of course, such a social democratic programme is not in itself socialist, but a fight to ensure solidarity across each member state would seek to level up labour rights, working conditions and regulations etc. in order that national differences are eroded and the nationalism that feeds off them is undermined.  In this way the grounds for the international unity of the working class can be increased.

So the socialist position is not to attempt to prevent or hold back the unity of Europe but to rapidly advance it in order that the best conditions for the organisation of workers as a class, irrespective of nationality, is created.  We don’t take the view that this cannot be done under capitalism but must somehow wait until after socialism has been created, just as we don’t wait for socialism to unite workers right now within nation states.  If capitalism breaks the restrictions of these states all the more so should the working class.

Those reactionary socialists who can conceive of socialism only as a set of sympathetic diplomatic relations between separate states have no comprehension that the real unity of workers will arise from the internationalisation of capitalism, just as the working class itself is a creation of capitalism, upon which the independent organisation of workers has been and will continue to be built.

The former can only emphasise the sovereignty and independence of separate states while the latter stands for the self-determination and independence of the working class – in opposition to these states and the institutions they create for subordinating workers at the international level, which includes the EU.  The objective is therefore a single socialist polity across the continent.

The first priority now is to campaign for all those standing in the election who at least support Remain and do so on an internationalist basis, who are seeking to advance workers’ interests in the knowledge that the principle of solidarity that ‘divided we fall and united we stand’ applies at the international level as well.

But of course, we have a problem.  Opposition to Brexit also defines the right MPs that still form a large slice of the parliamentary Labour Party, not to mention the Liberal Democrats and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

It would not make sense to call for a vote for only left-Remain Labour candidates – there are not two Labour Parties and we have not yet democratised the one we have so that it reflects the views of the overwhelming majority of the membership.  If we could ‘solve’ this by only voting for left-Remain MPs then this task would not be necessary.

A majority Labour Party is the best position at the present time to not only defend ourselves against the Tories plans for massive attacks on the working class through Brexit, but also to move forward to opposing Brexit itself inside the Party.  Such a fight would provide a way out of the prospective dangers already mentioned, of a unjustifiable and unsustainable Brexit or continuing paralysis and crisis.  So while the resources of socialists should be concentrated on supporting left-Remain candidates and campaigning more widely for the socialist Remain argument, the overall call is for a Labour vote.  In this process the left inside the Party can demonstrate the correctness of its approach through the inevitable failure of Brexit to deliver what it claims.

Where this does not apply is to those Labour MPs who have voted for the Tory Brexit and who have employed reactionary arguments to defend it, while advancing reactionary politics that essentially blame foreign workers for the problems faced by British workers. In this they are also fundamentally no different from the Tories, which is the ultimate reason why they voted for it.

So what about the Liberals and the nationalists?  They are for Remain – so why not support tactical voting in an attempt to get a Remain majority and at least prevent the Tory’s Brexit?

At this point we have to take a step back, and remember what was said in the first post.  It was argued that Brexit would entail economic disruption that ‘means loss of markets and economies of scale in production; reduced capital accumulation leading to lower economic growth, and loss of necessary labour power both skilled and unskilled without which some current production will cease, shrink, or grow more slowly.’

This is obviously no more in the interests of the bigger capitalists who engage in foreign trade, seek economies of scale and require as wide a pool of labour to exploit as possible, as it is for workers – whose interest is not in more primitive forms of capitalism, in comparison to which the form of capitalism encapsulated in the EU is actually more progressive.  It’s why the Liberals and nationalists, not to mention the Blairites and some Tories, are also for Remain.  They do not do so because, as I said, Brexit will reduce workers’ incomes and employment and diminish the capacity of a social democratic government to provide welfare payments and to redistribute incomes.  They aren’t interested in this, except to stop it; their opposition to Brexit is not our opposition and cannot be endorsed.

So, apart from the fact that the Liberals and nationalists’ keenness for an election has revealed that their priority is not opposition to Brexit but their own party, their projects cannot be supported in any way.  Their politics are antithetical to the interests of workers in the same way that Brexit is, in so far as they seek to divide workers by nationalism, and in the case of the Liberals, in pursuing an opposition to Labour that has so exceeded their differences with the Tories.  It would not even be such a massive surprise if the Liberals did another deal with the Tories after the election, if the Tories required one; a deal for example that could be packaged as a ‘soft’ Brexit.  However, even on their own account, their reactionary politics can easily encompass support for a Tory domestic and foreign policy agenda that would be perfectly consistent with a Tory Brexit.  In short – the Liberals are a party of the class enemy.

The election may facilitate increased awareness that the choice now facing working people, at least outside Scotland, is more and more to be considered as one of Johnson and his Brexit or the social democracy of Corbyn’s Labour.  Much of this awareness will come from increased understanding that the dangers posed by the Johnson-led Tories derive particularly from their plans for Brexit.  This makes it even more inexcusable that the Corbyn leadership refuses to oppose it but has effectively come down harder in its defence. Even so, contrary to speculation that Corbyn would, as he first appeared to indicate, talk about everything but Brexit, he has said more about it than expected precisely because it has become so clear that Brexit is the sharp end of Tory plans to assault the living standards and rights of the working class.

Nevertheless, the position of Corbyn on Brexit makes it less likely that the Labour Party will appear as the alternative that strong supporters of Remain would like it to be.  And we now have numerous polls indicating that a very large number of potential Labour voters fall into this category. The call for a united party from Labour spokespeople in the election has so far effectively been used to further unity around the leadership’s Brexit agenda.

Nevertheless, opposition will not be advanced by abstaining from the election on the grounds that an election victory would see the Party likely end up in the same Brexit position as the Tories.  This is because at least in the short term, this would not be the case.  While a Corbyn proposed Brexit may be of the ‘softest’ variety, it will entail a cost, and will appear all the more pointless the softer it is.  Opposition to any Labour deal from the right and from the left would end up effectively making this same argument.

The view of the left that Brexit is not in reality compatible with any radical social democratic programme will impose itself one way or another. Labour supporters will not dismiss mounting evidence of its threats as do the demoralised, blinkered and prejudiced supporters of Brexit who in their majority now favour no deal.  They will less and less accept a policy of ‘respecting the referendum’ the more this entails they’re having to respect their rights and living standards being shredded.

So the truth that socialists must always fight beside the working class, however backward it views, will find support from the majority of Party members and supporters who are opposed to Brexit.  A Corbyn policy of getting Brexit ‘sorted’, if put to the test, would encourage further efforts to sort it by stopping it.

The longer the struggle goes on to impose this reactionary project the more likely it is that the reactionary supporters of Brexit will be demoralised.  ‘Taking back control’ will seem further away the further Britain gets into the reality of Britain on its own.  Whatever the result the reality of Brexit will impose itself with the most obvious losers its Lexit supporters, whose illusions are the most absurd.

While elections are important, socialists argue that it is not fundamentally elections that are determinate. Rather elections reflect the state of politics and the class struggle and can influence them but not decide them. What is most important therefore is that the vast majority of members of the Party are mobilised in the election in such a way as to strengthen the left in the party and its capacity to impose its views by putting a Labour Government into office.  In 2016 the referendum was to decide the question and it didn’t, and neither did the 2017 general election.  It would not be a great surprise if the current election didn’t either.  In any case the the task is to ensure an election result that puts us in as strong position as possible to resist a Brexit that still has a long way to go.

Back to part 1

Saying Yes to Jeremy?

So, as far as Jeremy Corbyn is concerned, when it comes to Brexit – ‘look, this debate is now over. We’ve done it, the party has now made its decision, and that’s it; and that’s what we’re going to campaign on.”  (As quoted in The Guardian) As for his decision to support a general election in the shadow cabinet meeting – “it was my decision. On my own. I made that decision. And they gulped, and said, Yes Jeremy.”

So how do we as socialists reconcile the Labour Party’s support for Brexit, which is reactionary, and its radical social democratic programme?

Firstly by recognising that they cannot be reconciled, that ‘friendly relations’ – employing one dictionary definition – cannot be established between the two projects: they are incompatible and one will have to give.  They are inconsistent and the contradictions between them will lead to one, or perhaps both, being ditched.  Anyone believing that a Labour Brexit is part and parcel of a radical social democratic programme is therefore mistaken.

Brexit will disrupt the insertion of the British economy into its biggest trading partner, which is its main market and theatre of operation; main supplier of additional skilled and unskilled labour power; intermediate goods that enable production to be sited in Britain; and the main route through which it inserts itself into the economies of the rest of the world – through agreements and deals which it has, as part of the EU, negotiated with the United States, Japan, South America etc. etc.

Disruption means loss of markets and economies of scale in production; reduced capital accumulation leading to lower economic growth, and loss of necessary labour power both skilled and unskilled without which some current production will cease, shrink, or grow more slowly.  The loss of these markets means that the reduction of existing and potential production will also reduce incomes and employment and the capacity of the state to syphon off revenues to finance its services.  It will reduce its capacity to provide welfare payments and to redistribute incomes, which are sold as central to Labour’s declared project of reducing inequality, insecurity and poverty.

The idea that a transformation of ownership of utilities and other companies from private capital to state ownership will compensate for these effects ignores the reality that state production will be affected just as much by the loss of skilled and unskilled labour, loss of markets and economies of scale etc. as private capital.  State ownership does not by itself create new markets that have just been shut off or reduced, or provide the labour power that is necessary for the current British economy to operate efficiently and grow.

This is all obvious from even cursory examination of media coverage of Brexit’s effects, today reporting potential damage to the tourist industry, but previously in relation to international research and university teaching, to EU staff in the NHS, the whole car industry, aircraft production, financial services and seasonal workers in agriculture, and many others. When asked this morning on Radio 4 whether any sort of Brexit could be better for the NHS, the Labour spokesman evaded the question – ‘the people had voted for it so they were going to be given the opportunity to get it’, was the gist of his reply.  As if it was not obvious what the honest answer had to be.

So, left supporters of Brexit treat it as a separate issue from every other, all of which can be made amenable to the actions of the British State.  The entirely un-socialist view, that the state should and could have such power to banish all the problems created, could only come from one that believes –

1, capitalist state ownership is somehow socialist;

2, the state can suspend or abolish capitalism through its ownership, and do so  in a relatively small country within a much larger and more powerful capitalist world;

3, the division of workers by nationalism and racism can be ended by providing answers that include shutting out foreign workers as if they were part of the problem, rather than their existence in Britain seen as an opportunity for unity that can banish nationalism and xenophobia, and

4, it is possible to ignore the failure of such experiments across the world that have distorted and tarnished the understanding and reputation of socialism.

On top of all this, it describes the socialist alternative – based on an international approach to workers solving their problems – as a question of ‘culture wars.’

Whenever Costas Lapavitsas, a left supporter of Brexit, spoke at a meeting in Belfast I told him that he had come to the wrong country if he wanted to parade the British State as the answer; and I cited internment, Bloody Sunday, murder and torture as all products of the state that we are required to believe can alone deliver progress.   Brexit threatens to further divide workers in Ireland with a harder border while its left supporters complain that the EU is responsible.

Meanwhile it threatens to divide in Britain as Britain has divided Ireland.  We can see this in many ways and not just in speculation that Scottish nationalism will be strengthened.  We see it from the speeches of Brexit supporters claiming that the only way to prevent violence is to support Brexit; that the only way to respect the memory of an MP murdered by a nationalist fanatic is to carry through the policy he killed her for; to describing opposition to the nationalist and reactionary policy of Brexit as a question of ‘culture’, just as in Ireland opposition to sectarianism is declared to be opposition to Protestant ‘culture’.  A culture composed of sectarian demonstrations and burning bonfires upon which Catholic, foreign, gay and any vaguely progressive flag or symbol is burned.

Perhaps it could be claimed that Corbyn’s Labour Party might reconcile its social democratic agenda with Brexit because it doesn’t actually support it?  Except no one believes this, and not just because of Corbyn’s own presumed Brexit views.  No one, that is, except the most ardent Brexit supporters of both right and left for whom the dangers and damage of Brexit are actually its attraction – the separation and isolation, the attempt to turn the clock back, and the illusions in the special role and place of Britain in the world.

From ‘respecting the referendum result’, to seeking how it might support a Theresa May deal, to seeking to negotiate its own deal, to refusing to accept the view of the majority of its own members, everything the Corbyn leadership has done has facilitated a policy of letting Brexit happen. All on the spurious grounds that it can be dispensed with as an issue, Labour can ‘bring people together’ around its agenda and continue with the lie that Brexit is not a part of it.

A second defence is that Labour’s Brexit is not a Tory Brexit, but one that protects jobs and living standards through a customs union and adherence to workers and environmental standards, while striking one’s own trade deals and having a say in future EU deals.  In other words, a deal that shares the illusions of the Tories, before they actually had to negotiate the first step of withdrawal.

It should not need to be said – the EU will not allow Britain the benefits of membership without being a member and paying for it as every other member of the EU does.  So yes, new customs arrangements can be agreed, as can regulatory alignment, and even alignment with future regulation; but you will have to pay for these arrangements and you will have no say in them or any other deal that the EU negotiates with other countries that you will have to accept.  If the EU is so irrevocably rotten why do you want to leave if you will have to pay for accepting its rules without having any say in their formation?

Perhaps you think you can strike your own deals and improve your own protections of workers’ rights?  But you can improve workers’ rights now, if you want.  If this creates a threat that British companies will leave to avoid these new regulations, why don’t you stay in the EU and fight for them to be adopted across the continent?  Would this not give you a strategy to unite workers across Europe and challenge the EU as it currently functions, as opposed to kidding yourself you can just walk away from it?  Perhaps you think you cannot succeed in this, because changes require unanimity within the EU?  But this means your single voice at the very least is an obstacle to a race to the bottom – Brexit on the other hand threatens an unrestricted, Trump-led sprint downwards to the bottom of the barrel.

Perhaps Labour thinks its own deals with other countries will be better.  But what sort of level of workers’ and environmental regulation does it think much bigger countries and trading blocs, such as the US, China and India, will demand for any deals?  Will the EU accept unrestricted trade with a Britain that has agreed that goods can enter Britain from these countries that do not conform with the trade deals that the EU itself has agreed with them?  A relatively small country like Britain may be forced to accept the EU’s regulations or everyone else’s.  What it won’t be able to do is enforce any of its own standards, especially if they were to be higher.

What you have left is a dystopian vision of an isolated and backward Britain dominated by the state that will be declared a socialist paradise by the enemies of socialism and by the defenders of its Stalinist inspiration so discredited in the last century.

Forward to part 2

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ part 8 – provocative civil rights

The December 1968 speech by Terence O’Neill was a landmark in unfolding events, but unfortunately there were many such landmarks.  Many critics of the militancy of some in the civil rights movement have since been too keen to blame the subsequent descent into the Troubles on their refusal to trust the bona fides of the Unionist regime, but without detaining themselves long to examine the paucity of the reforms on offer.

At the time the speech had a powerful impact on public opinion, and many were impressed at his sacking of the hard-line Minister of Home Affairs, Bill Craig.  The leadership of NICRA and the ‘moderate’ leaders of the Citizens’ Action Committee in Derry all accepted the request to call off their demonstrations and suspend their protests.

Peoples Democracy decided that the promises of the Unionist Government would be tested.  The speech by O’Neill had solved nothing and even the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson noted that universal franchise – ‘one man, one vote’ – had not been granted.  A march starting on 1 January 1969 from Belfast to Derry modelled on the Selma-Montgomery march in Alabama three years before, which exposed racist violence and forced reform, would test the Unionist Government’s intentions.

The intentions of unionist hard-liners became apparent very quickly.  The march was subject to repeated harassment and struggled to take its intended course with repeated blockages and police diversions that seemed intended to facilitate loyalist attacks.  On the fourth day the RUC led the demonstration into an ambush at Burntollet in which hundreds of loyalists throwing stones and bottles attacked with clubs and iron bars.  Some RUC men joined in the attack while dozens of the attackers were later exposed as off-duty members of the B Special constabulary, especially notorious for its bigotry.  No attempt was made to arrest the attackers and later both police and assailants were to be found socialising together. The march regrouped and faced further attack but eventually made its way into Derry. City

PD had organised the march to test the Unionist Government and its State but did not anticipate the level of violent reaction it suffered; encapsulating one great problem for the whole civil rights struggle.  In the words of PD leader Michael Farrell, “either the government would face up to the extreme right . . . and protect the march . . . or it would be exposed as impotent in the face of sectarian thuggery, and Westminster would be forced to intervene.”

The problem with this was that the Unionist Government was not concerned with sectarian thuggery in itself but only with its possible consequences, especially intervention by Westminster, although Westminster did not want to intervene.  The result was that sectarian thuggery took on, and had to take on, massive proportions before Westminster did eventually intervene, and then not primarily to stop the sectarian thugs.

Because this was not understood more appropriate preparations to defend against sectarian attacks were not taken and nor was the character of the later Westminster intervention understood, or the much greater level of violence it eventually entailed.

The idea of ‘provocation’ was not only the accusation of unionism but was also part of the calculation of some radical civil rights leaders. One marcher stated that “Our function in marching . . . was to break the truce, to relaunch the civil rights movement as a mass movement, and to show the people that O’Neill was, in fact, offering them nothing. We knew that we wouldn’t finish the march without getting molested, and we were accused of looking for trouble. What we really wanted to do was pull the carpet off the floor to show the dirt that was under it.”

The PD march had been opposed by the leadership of NICRA and the Derry Citizens Action Committee, while the most prominent organiser, Michael Farrell, said he knew what he was doing – “a lot of the route was through my home area of South Derry so I knew . . . the likely reaction.”

One author of the history of the civil rights movement was not so sure:

“Farrell had not, however, anticipated the full extent of the violence. He had thought that the march would force the Government either to confront the loyalists or to drop its pretensions about reform, but he had not been clear about the further consequences of forcing the Government to resist sections of its own supporters. The loyalists might back down, or the Government might fall, forcing the British government to intervene. The purpose of the march was to upset the status quo.” (Bob Purdie, ‘Politics in the Streets’)

When the Nationalist Party had tried to march in Derry city centre in 1952, for example, the march had been banned and then broken up violently by an RUC baton charge. One consequence was a great reluctance to defy these bans and the next to do so in Derry was the civil rights march in October 1968.

As Eamonn McCann said, “the strategy was to provoke the police into overreaction”, and as he also put it, “one certain way to ensure a head-on clash with the authorities was to organise a non-Unionist march through the city centre.”  “Our conscious, if unspoken, strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off mass reaction against the authorities.” (War and an Irish Town p 62.)  Of October 1968 he said – “we had set out to make the police over-react.  But we hadn’t expected the animal brutality of the RUC.”

But if opponents of this approach have accused these radicals of provocation, they have been less keen to interrogate just exactly what justification had those who were provoked?

Given the moderation of the demands there is scant excuse for a violent reaction and the assumption of a strategy determinedly ‘non-provocative’ would appear to be that if you did next to nothing, next to nothing would be done to you.  But O’Neill’s promised reforms made it clear that the Unionist Government had no intention of granting equal citizenship rights to the Catholic minority without the strongest of pressure.  If only because pressure was being applied by hard-line loyalists on the other side, whose violence is so part of their nature that it is taken for granted by critics of the civil rights movement.  The imperative to non-provocation for these liberals thus always lies with the disadvantaged.

This does not imply that the moral righteousness of the oppressed means that no consideration need be given to the legitimacy or efficacy of methods of struggle employed.  It means that much more consideration needs to be given when you are in a position of weakness and you cannot simply declare a right to fight back by any means without accounting for its effects and its consequences.  There is no ‘right’ for Marxists to glorious or inglorious failure with its consequent casualties.

So, to demand civil rights meant challenging the sectarian parameters of society, which necessarily meant that the sectarian forces which defended these parameters were then ‘provoked’ into repressing demands for equality.  This, for example included demonstrating outside what was considered ‘your area’, which was then taken by the state as valid reason to enforce its sectarian rules by force.

For the defenders of sectarian supremacy any challenge to their sectarian rights was by its nature sectarian itself, simply by virtue of challenging the particular sectarian privileges of some Protestants.  In this view there was no such thing as non-sectarianism or anti-sectarianism because all attempts to redress the imbalance of rights necessarily impacted unequally on Protestants. In this view the inequality that existed was either denied or justified.  No claims to equality had any purchase on those with these views.  The alternative was to take a neutral view between these for and those opposed to sectarian practices, on the usually unspoken grounds that the latter were too powerful and capable, of violence.

The state defended itself not so much by arguing against the civil rights demands themselves as against those who were raising them, by arguing that the civil rights campaign involved republicans and was a republican front; in effect stating that even mild demands for change were subversive.

We have seen that no one outside of the Catholic population itself was able to build any substantial opposition to the State’s sectarian practices, so it had to come from within that population, not just logically but inevitably.  When the demands were raised by ‘moderate’ middle class figures they were ignored.  When they were raised by trade unions and the Northern Ireland Labour Party they were ignored.  When they were raised on the streets it was inevitable that leftists and republicans would be involved, at which point they were no longer ignored but attacked.

The involvement of the Communist Party in NICRA meant unionism also associated it and civil rights with Communism, which had a particular connotation at this time because 1968 was also the year the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.  The development of NICRA however showed that neither the Communist Party nor republicans had control of the movement.

NICRA had rejected the charge that the 5 October march in Derry was provocative and it was pointed out later that there were no clashes between demonstrators and Protestant residents but only between demonstrators and the police.  As a defence however this could not be sustained when loyalists increasingly confronted civil rights demonstrations, as they had done from the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon. This was also a consideration for those opposed to the PD march but no one in the civil rights movement could afford to allow counter-demonstrations by the most bigoted Paisley supporters or attacks by off-duty police and Special Constabulary to veto their right to protest and demand for civil rights.

Either these attacks would lead to passivity and reliance on the good grace of the Unionist Government to introduce reforms, or the campaign would continue until they had been implemented, or not.

This at least seemed the logical choice, but as has been said before in this blog, political struggle is not a question of logic.  Political struggle gives rise to (or arises from) an opposition and this changes the choices that can be made.

It is clear that the civil rights movement did not foresee the vicious loyalist reaction that dragged the opposition to the sectarianism of the state into the Troubles, but they are not to be ‘blamed’ for the Troubles on that account.  Rather, if blame is to be apportioned, it is to those who violently opposed civil rights and who escalated their violent opposition as they saw the sectarian rights they were defending threatened.

Back to part 7

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 7 – civil rights takes centre stage

Image result for derry civil rights movement 1968

Television pictures of the civil rights demonstration in Derry on 5 October 1968 being attacked by police sparked anger across the North and South of Ireland and shock in Britain and further afield.  In Belfast Queens University students marched from the University into the city centre and set up a new organisation – Peoples Democracy (PD) – when they returned.

On the right of the spectrum, the Nationalist Party withdrew from its position as official opposition at Stormont and endorsed a policy of ‘non-violent civil disobedience’ and the civil rights agenda.   This did nothing to change the leadership of the civil rights movement while the running was made elsewhere as the next day PD held another demonstration to the City Hall in Belfast.  On 21 October the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared that there must be reforms while the Taoiseach Jack Lynch visited London and protested against the events in Derry.  Just over a week later Wilson met the leadership of the Unionist Government and demanded the introduction of reforms.

In Derry the movement that had played such a big role in precipitating the crisis was rather easily taken out of the control of left radicals by the local Catholic middle class, intent on instilling its discipline.  Thus was created the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee (DCAC) which most radicals joined, afraid of marginalisation if they didn’t, except for Eamonn McCann who walked out of the launch meeting in protest.  The presence of the majority of radicals however made no appreciable difference to the course of action taken by the DCAC.  The weakness and lack of perspectives that had been discussed by these radicals when they existed in separate loose organisation and alliance was made abundantly clear inside the Citizens Action Committee.

The DCAC brought more planning and organisation to protests, which they began organising, such as the mass sit-down in Guildhall Square later in October.  It was bigger than the 5 October demonstration, with between four and five thousand taking part, demanding a crash housing programme and points system for housing allocation. So, while denying it had any political purpose, even the new middle class leaders felt the need to extend the demands of the movement and continue its activity on the streets.

On the other hand the DCAC, run by local businessmen, did not mark itself out as centrally concerned with civil rights and hardly had much to do with NICRA at all, which in itself is symptomatic of both the limited nature of NICRA and the localised and confined perspective of leading figures in the Catholic middle class. There appeared to be no movement to compel the creation of a united and democratic civil rights campaign across the North or, on the other hand, a united left component of it, composed of the Derry radicals, PD in Belfast and others.  Instead, histories of the period note that the civil rights association and the wider civil rights movement were separate.  As so often, especially on the left, the need to prioritise activity in order to take advantage of a particular conjuncture of circumstances affected everyone concerned.

Another demonstration, defying a Government ban that the RUC could not enforce, was held on 16 November and was much larger that the October demonstration, with at least 15,000 taking part.  Two days later 400 dockworkers left work and marched and 1,000 shirt factory women also left work to demonstrate in the city centre as court proceedings arising from the first march started.  Later that night Protestant youths attacked the women as the evening shift left the factory, with clashes continuing the following day.

Two days later disagreement developed over a proposed demonstration on unemployment, which the DCAC leadership argued successfully against.  As Eamonn McCann later acknowledged, this approach “perfectly matched the mood of the Catholic masses” – “reasonable, respectable, righteous, solid, non-violent and determined.  The DCAC “did not challenge the consciousness of the Catholic masses.  It updated the expression of it, injected new life into it and made it relevant to a changed situation.”  As MCann also observed, it contrived to contain within itself those who wanted to destroy this consciousness.

Nevertheless, the repercussions of the Derry demonstration and the publicity it generated were carried forward – by the actions of the DCAC in leading street action and by the spontaneous demonstrations of workers. Coupled with the defection of the Nationalist Party and the radicalisation elsewhere, including demonstrations in Belfast, it contributed to growing pressure on the Unionist regime to make some concessions. On 22 November the Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill announced a package of reforms.

They included a review of local government that would deal with ‘one man one vote’ in two years’ time, the abolition of the Special Powers Act as soon as practically possible, encouragement to local authorities to use a merit-based points system for allocating public housing (that they could make up themselves), an ombudsman to deal with complaints and a development commission to replace Londonderry Corporation.

One obvious problem with the reforms was that the Unionist Party leadership remained in control of the government with the only significant threat to its parliamentary majority being the threat from hard-right unionists. This dynamic ensured that the reforms were minimised for fear of losing this right-wing support and would continue got come under pressure. For example, the points system for allocating public housing was left for the local authorities to devise themselves.  The abolition of the Special Powers Act was to be as soon ‘as practically possible’, while the then Minister of Home Affairs suggested that this might not be for some time.

Most importantly, the package did not end the restricted franchise in local government and included no measures that would actually guarantee the end of unionist control of districts where nationalists were in a majority, except for Derry where a development commission was to take charge. All of the important levers of power remained in the hands of the Unionist Party. ‘One man, one vote’, which had come to crystallise the civil rights movement’s concerns had not been conceded, demonstrating that the Unionist Party couldn’t concede it because to do so threatened a split.

Unionist backbenchers were opposed to the reforms, while the cabinet had carried out analysis that showed that without the property franchise Catholics would make up a majority of the electorate in Fermanagh and Tyrone whilst threatening the Unionist Party position elsewhere.

The rioting that had followed the Derry October demonstration had given rise to concerns about future possible sectarian clashes, although it had been pointed out by ciivil rights protestors that it was the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that had attacked the demonstrators and not local Protestants. Nevertheless, a small civil rights march in November from Strabane to Derry had been attacked by loyalists, and at the end of the month supporters of Ian Paisley occupied the location of a civil rights march in Armagh town centre, armed with cudgels and sticks, preventing the legal civil rights march from taking its intended route.  The denial on full civil rights so evident in the limited concessions offered in O’Neill’s reform package was matched on the streets by the RUC, which stood by while loyalists prevented a legal civil rights demonstration.

It was clear rather rapidly that the reforms proposed were not enough, although they still led to a clash inside the Unionist Government, with the hard-line Home Secretary Bill Craig sacked after his criticism of a televised speech by O’Neill.   This had been designed to show the Unionist Government’s commitment to reform – “your voice has been heard and clearly heard .  Your duty now is to play your part in taking the heat out of the situation.”

The message was that the Unionist Government had played its part and now the civil rights movement was to play its – by calling an end to the demonstrations that caused so much violence and division.    Many Catholics were impressed that the previously aloof Unionist Prime Minister spoke directly to them, even if he spoke on behalf of the Protestant middle class that feared looming violence.  The unionist ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper ran a campaign in support of O’Neil with tens of thousands of its coupons backing himl being returned by its readers.

His ‘Cross roads’ speech in December 1968 warned of the situation being on “the brink of chaos”, while he appealed for the civil rights movement to call off its demonstrations, pledging that there would be no watering down of the promised changes.  NICRA and the DCAC acquiesced and called a truce on marches while nationalist newspapers welcomed the defeat of unionist hardliners and the reforms that were on their way, hoping that this promised steady progress in the future.

O’Neill had certainly changed the style and rhetoric of Unionist rule somewhat and was, as one author put it, “strong on gestures and bold statements”,  but there were very restricted limits to any reforming intentions and those that existed should be seen as part of attempts to modernise and rejuvenate industry and the economy more generally.  Unionist reformism, such as it was, assumed that the benefits of British welfarism and economic progress, plus funding for Catholic Church institutions, would nullify any demand for equality.  For O’Neill, the ‘Scotch-Irish’ Protestants of the North of Ireland were as different from the rest of the Irish people as ‘chalk from cheese’.

His premiership demonstrated no evidence that the anti-Catholic character of the Unionist Party was changing or that the Orange Order was not still an important part of it.  He wanted North-South relations to improve but there were no measures to prevent or combat discrimination in Northern Ireland.  He condemned the October civil rights march in Derry as ‘an act of pure provocation’ and supported the police despite its violent attack on it.

Undoubtedly he was limited in what he could do by the right wing of his party, which was rather rapidly and easily to become predominant, but he thought civil rights was only of interest to a minority of Catholics who he believed were more interested in houses, jobs and public services plus funding for their own sectarian institutions.

O’Neill did not so much advance a non-sectarian agenda, and pave the way for measures to reduce sectarianism, as undercut the growing but fragile movements that did and which threatened Unionist hegemony and that might have heralded a real, even if limited, advance on civil rights – the NILP in particular.  His liberal image had also made it easier to resist pressure from Westminster for some reform by the Unionist regime, which would have been harder to justify by other hard-line unionist leaders.  In this regard however, even the threats from the British Government to start interfering were not meant to speed up reforms but to avert intervention.

O’Neill sought Catholic quiescence to a unionist state, as his reaction to the 5 October civil rights demonstration showed.  Rather than criticise or apologise for the violence of the RUC he threatened to mobilise the even more sectarian and ill-disciplined B-Special Constabulary.

The limited character of the November reform package was clear, while his call for an end to civil rights demonstrations was precisely the objective of hard-line unionists, and also of the Paisley counter-demonstrations that had generated much of the violence.  Given these circumstances it was not unreasonable or even unexpected that this commitment to reform, and resistance to the right wing inside and outside the Unionist Party, would be tested.

It was only a question of time, although even today some controversy and condemnation attends to the Peoples Democracy march in January 1969 that did the testing.

Back to part 6

Forward to part 8