From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 10 – the rise of sectarianism

The political confrontation resulting from the clash of the civil rights movement with a Unionist regime unwilling to offer the necessary reforms led to growing tension and violence intensified by the mobilisation of extreme loyalism.

The riots in Derry in April 1969, which were prevented from developing into greater conflict by withdrawal of the RUC, were preceded by an explosion at an electricity station just south of Belfast, followed by another at the Silent Valley reservoir in County Down, and another at an electricity facility in Portadown.  These were blamed on the IRA and provided the opportunity for hard-line unionists to demand greater repression, while denouncing the civil rights movement as a vehicle for armed republicanism.

Ian Paisley’s campaign against O’Neill continued, with the latter described as “a traitor, a tyrant, and a viper,’ whilst his newspaper, the ‘Protestant Telegraph’, declared that “this latest act of IRA terrorism is an ominous indication of what lies ahead for Ulster: IRA barbarism, especially, sabotage and ambush.  Loyalists must now appreciate the struggle that lies ahead and the supreme sacrifice that will have to be made in order that Ulster will remain Protestant.”  In fact, it was associates of Paisley who carried out the bombings, for which he is now alleged to have provided the finance.The loyalist bombs were intended to raise the spectre of an IRA campaign, so justifying rejection of demands for further reform and supporting the removal of the ‘traitor’ O’Neill.

Rioting followed NICRA and PD protests in Belfast; and the IRA petrol-bombed a number of post offices on the same day that the more effective loyalist bombings of the water and electricity facilities were carried out.  The IRA had carried out a number of actions in the previous couple of years but these rather revealed its weakness which had been reflected in poor electoral results, for example coming in fourth out of four candidates in the October 1964 Westminster election.  In May 1967 and January 1968, it had bombed British army recruitment offices in Belfast and Lisburn and in July 1968 had attacked an RUC operation in West Belfast with a hand grenade.

IRA leader Cathal Goulding revealed the policy of republicans at this time and both their new thinking and the limits to it.  In February 1969 he stated that “if the civil rights movement fails there will be no answer other than the answer we have always preached.  Everyone will realise it and all constitutional methods will go overboard.”  British Intelligence estimated that the IRA had 500 members in the North and while morale was considered good it was short of guns, ammunition and money.  In any case at this point such activity was subordinated to civil rights agitation over which it had influence but not control.

Its actions in targeting post offices was designed to draw off RUC who would otherwise be available to join attacks on the Bogside.  This was justified as a defensive operation that protected Catholics and was to be the approach taken later in the year when attacks on the Bogside took place again in August, one that dramatically demonstrated the extremely limited capacity of the IRA to play this role.  The rationale for the IRA carrying out more minor attacks than loyalists in such circumstances can therefore be questioned.

In the face of continuing protests and the rioting in Belfast, Terence O’Neill conceded the principle of ‘One Man, One Vote’ on 22 April.  The next day the prominent Unionist Chichester-Clarke, who was O’Neill’s cousin, resigned.  The Unionist Parliamentary Party accepted the reform by 28 votes to 22 but the other prominent Unionist leader, Brain Faulkner, voted against.

That night two more explosions occurred at water facilities, leaving the whole of Belfast badly short of water, weakening further the position of O’Neill inside the Party.  Rather than face impending defeat, and in order to secure the leadership for Chichester-Clarke rather than the more hard-line Brian Faulkner, O’Neill resigned, to be replaced by his cousin by a majority of just one vote.

The ingrained sectarianism that existed even within ‘reforming’ unionism was exposed in an interview with the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper in May when O’Neill, after his resignation, said that:

“It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church”

Chichester-Clarke attempted to re-unite the Unionist Party by bringing Faulkner back into the cabinet while announcing a temporary amnesty for offences connected with political protest.  This spared not only civil rights demonstrators but also loyalists like Paisley, who got out of jail, and B Special Constabulary who otherwise might have been expected to qualify for prosecution by the RUC. After Chichester-Clarke and Faulkner met Harold Wilson and James Callaghan from the Labour Government at Westminster it was announced that the next local elections would be held under ‘One Man, One Vote’.

NICRA had called a temporary halt to demonstrations but demanded a timetable for reforms that would include abandoning the proposed Public Order Bill designed to repress demonstrations.  At the end of June demonstrations began again.

The strains placed on the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society meant that the political conflict around civil rights had not been solved, or rather, the acceptance of civil rights by the Unionist leadership did not signal an agreed solution.  Half the Unionist Party had opposed equal voting rights and armed loyalists had attempted to ratchet up the tension and provoke a more repressive response.

In April a meeting was held of community leaders in the Shankill Road in Belfast, ostensibly to address poor housing conditions in the area.  These were undoubtedly awful.  In the house that I lived in at that time the outside toilet had only recently been ‘joined’ to the rest of the house, so that snails had to be avoided on the cold tiles while running from the bath to the fire in order to dry off.  In work done to put in an electric fire in the living room, what seemed like hundreds of cockroaches ran out when the old wooden hearth was lifted up.  Within the year the ceiling in the living room had fallen down unannounced on my mother and myself.

But this accommodation seemed luxurious in comparison to my grandparents house further down the Shankill Road, which still had an outside toilet, complete with newspaper, and two bedrooms upstairs whose floors were so uneven that it was impossible to lie down on the bed without quickly feeling the blood draining either to one’s head or feet. The conditions of many on the Shankill were often no better than conditions on the Catholic Falls and some Protestants thought they were worse, since Divis Flats at the bottom of the Falls had just been built.

The difference of course was that Protestants by and large supported the regime that kept them in these conditions while Catholics opposed it.  They didn’t see such conditions as a reason to oppose the Unionists, unless like my parents they continued to vote for the Northern Ireland Labour Party, but rather were convinced that the Catholics were no worse off than they were and so had no justification for their opposition.  The hostility to Catholic claims was grounded on the sectarian identity that defined most Shankill Protestants and their politics.

The meeting of Shankill community figures included Mina Browne, who had made a name for herself by supporting the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, and had been a part-time cleaner in Belfast Corporation.  In that capacity she had organised protests against the Corporation’s decision to allow Catholics to join the list of school cleaners.  She had also sent an anonymous threatening telegram to a Unionist MP on behalf of the UVF, although the telegraph clerk had rather exposed her by putting her address on the telegram!  She had also denounced Paisley as a ‘big wind bag’, proving once again that there was always someone more extreme than the extremists within loyalism.

The meeting was highjacked from its purported purpose and a Shankill Defence Association (SDA) created.  This quickly set up groups of vigilantes with a membership of 2,000 and acquired arms and explosives.  In the later British Government sponsored Scarman Tribunal, which looked into the background to the growing violence, a senior RUC officer was to describe the SDA as a small group of men, even though it was to play a major role in the mass intimidation of Catholic residents in the general Shankill area and the streets adjacent to it.

Slogans began appearing on walls – ‘Fenians get out or we’ll burn you out’ –  and direct intimidation escalated.  Three families fled their homes in Dover street while a few days later another loyalist mob threatened Catholics in Manor Street.   Others received bullets in envelopes marked ‘UVF’, or with a warning that the next bullet they got ‘will be through your head.’.  One Catholic owner of a café on the Crumlin Road received a message from the UVF stating that ‘if she did not shut her café she would be burned out.’

Loyalist intimidation also grew outside Belfast, with three sticks of gelignite planted at a Catholic church in Saintfield, south of Belfast, and a petition organised in the mainly Protestant workforce at the ICI plant in Carrickfergus, north of Belfast, stating that ‘too many Catholics were getting in.’  Meanwhile, the Unionist regime used emergency powers to deploy the British army to guard key installations from the IRA and called up the armed police reserve – the B Specials – many of whose members were responsible for the growing loyalist violence.

The leader of the SDA was John McKeague and it is instructive of so much of what happened in ‘the Troubles’, at this time and afterwards, to read his Wikipedia page. An acolyte of Paisley he was, like many such people, later disowned by him, playing the role of Paisley himself by occupying Belfast City Centre to protest against a James Connolly commemoration demonstration on 15 June.

In the lead up to the height of the Unionist marching season in July intimidation increased on the street and in workplaces.  The Fire Brigade recorded an increase in petrol-bomb attacks on Catholic properties in the Shankill, while McKeague organised swaps of homes between Protestants in Catholic Ardoyne and Catholics in the Shankill/Woodvale. On one occasion forty RUC looked on as a loyalist mob burned down a Catholic house.  On 5 July Paisley threatened at a rally of 2,000 loyalists in Bessbrook that he would march on the Catholic town of Newry.  Later, in August, he declared that his supporters were “armed and premeditated” while threatening that events would be worse than previous troubles in 1912, the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s.

In Belfast the increased tension and intimidation began to centre on the Unity Flats complex at the bottom of the Shankill Road, whose Catholic residents were woken early on 12th by loyalist bandsmen.  The loyalist parade was accompanied by the RUC but residents’ complaints to the police about the parade were ignored.  That night a mob spilling out of a club taunted the residents with ‘burn the fenians out.’  The Scarman Tribunal later noted that a Scottish band was involved, and it has generally been true that Scottish loyalists visiting Orange parades in Ireland often bring their own particular cocktail of sectarian bitterness.

At the Tribunal McKeague complained that Catholics had been given houses before Protestants and that by housing them in Unity Flats Belfast Corporation had “put rebels on our doorsteps.”  One SDA member, who was also a teacher, described mixed housing as a republican plot – “one of our planks was opposition to integrated housing.  The RCs had been taking over new districts, like the bottom of the Shankill.  What they do is, they get enough votes to elect a nationalist councillor, then eventually an MP . . . then gradually they will take over the whole of Northern Ireland.”

Eviction of Catholic families in Belfast continued while trouble also arose at two Orange parades in Dungiven in Co. Derry, with B Specials firing 100 live rounds.  Rioting took place on the 12 July in Derry between police and Catholic residents, and another Orange march in Dungiven saw one Catholic man killed after being hit on the head in an RUC baton charge. Francis McCloskey came to be recognised as the first person to be killed in the ‘Troubles’, dying only three days before Samuel Devenney, who had been assaulted by the RUC in Derry three months earlier.

In truth, ‘the Troubles’ can only have said to have started at this time in retrospect, and even then, it is debateable that this was the case.  Most date the start to 14/15 August 1969, when the British Army was put on the streets, and to the events immediately surrounding it, but this too invites the question – what exactly we denote when we speak of ‘the Troubles’?

In the few short weeks between the high point of the loyalist marching season on 12 July and the explosion of the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ one month later in Derry, the sectarian character of loyalism and the Unionist regime set the framework for what was about to happen.  It was not civil rights that delivered ‘the Troubles’ but the mobilisation of the repressive forces of the Northern State, and loyalist sectarian violence in response to it, that did.

Back to part 9

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 9 – the radicalisation of civil rights

Image result for bernadette devlin

Initial doubts or outright opposition to the January 1969 march by Peoples Democracy from some nationalist and civil rights’ leaders gave way to support as the march was obstructed and repeatedly attacked.  At Dungiven Catholic schoolchildren left their classes to greet the marchers while Protestant children stayed in their classrooms.  Sympathy was widespread when the marchers were attacked at Burntollet in County Derry.  It was attacked again before entering Derry City, where the Citizens Action Committee organised a reception to welcome them to their final destination.

Severe rioting broke out in the city centre after the reception and continued for several hours afterwards.  Later that night a group of RUC men, some of them drunk, attacked streets on the edge of the Bogside, smashing windows and attacking people in the street.  The DCAC decided to withdraw its truce on marching and congratulated PD on its restraint, while one prominent DCAC member promised that ‘it would be hard-line militancy until they got what they wanted.’

The DCAC accepted the need for vigilantes to protect Catholic areas, under some pressure from republicans who were among the few groups prepared to take on this activity, although DCAC stewards, later to be members of the SDLP, were also involved.  It was not however the case that republicans were automatically looked to in order to provide defence.  There were hardly enough of them for a start.

For five days a ‘Free Derry’ was created with barricades ensuring no RUC presence in the Bogside.  Patrols of local people policed the area while the RUC was excluded.  A gable-end wall was painted – ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ – while a ‘Radio Free Derry’ was created as ‘the voice of Liberation’.   Unfortunately, none of this had been prepared and the majority of people were not ready for it or what it implied.  To maintain it required some other perspective on the way forward from that of the leadership of the Citizens Action Committee, which was not at all comfortable with this type of action.  After five days the leadership of the Committee rather quickly persuaded those behind the barricades to take them down.  As McCann noted “we had neither the organisation nor the means to put resistance [to the police] into effect,” noting also that the radicals were actually members of the DCAC. However, even had they not been, it was clear that they could not have prevented their removal.

Catholic sympathy with O’Neill waned when he criticised the Burntollet marchers and their “foolhardy and irresponsible undertaking”.   Some of them were, he said, “mere hooligans ready to attack the police and others”.

While he also condemned people who “have attempted to take the law into their own hands in efforts to impede the march” and also their “disgraceful violence”, these people were simply “playing into the hands of those who are encouraging the current agitation.”  “Enough is enough, he said.  “We have heard sufficient for now about civil rights: let us hear about civic responsibility.”

Soon after Burntollet another demonstration was held in Newry organised by the local PD branch, which again faced the threat of a loyalist counter-demonstration in the mainly Catholic town.  Even when this threat was withdrawn the march was rerouted, which led to a riot, with police tenders burned and pushed into the canal that runs through the town.  The march organisers lost control while many civil rights supporters made claims that the attacks had been deliberately facilitated, with later strong suspicion of actions by an agent provocateur.

The Newry march led many people to conclude that civil rights demonstrations could no longer be carried out peacefully and that the movement had lost control over the more hot-headed and extreme elements of its support. In fact, between the end of January and the end of July 1969, there were ten occasions on which civil rights activities led to trouble and twenty-one in which they were carried out entirely peacefully, including another march in Newry on 28 June. The issue of marching however was thrust into the back-ground when Terence O’Neill called a general election for 24 February.

O’Neill faced more cabinet resignations after he announced a Commission of Enquiry into the recent events, while a majority of backbench Unionist Party MPs were now opposed to him with twelve meeting to call for his resignation.  He then called the general election, in which the Unionist Party consisted of both pro and anti-O’Neill candidates, so that some of the official Party candidates supported him and some opposed.

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The election appeared to settle nothing, with pro-O’Neill candidates getting nearly 142,000 votes and eleven seats, and the anti-O’Neill group getting nearly 131,000 and twelve seats.  O’Neill himself just scraped through in his own constituency.  Among the opposition, leaders of the civil rights movement ousted Nationalist MPs, with John Hume and Ivan Cooper elected.  The NILP made little impression losing one seat, retaining another and gaining one through Paddy Devlin, who had been active in the civil rights movement.  Devlin and six Nationalists were shortly to break with their parties and form the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), that was social democratic only in the sense that it didn’t particularly advocate anything else and Labour only in the sense that two of its MPs used to call themselves it.  The struggle for civil rights was breaking up the old parties and either replacing them or changing their character.

Peoples Democracy stood in the election on a manifesto which encompassed the established civil rights demands on the franchise, state repression and housing allocation, and added other demands such as a crash housing programme, state investment and state-owned industries with workers’ control, integrated comprehensive education and a break-up of large estates in the west to provide land for co-operative farms.

No seats were won, but PD candidates totted up 25,407 votes. Eamonn McCann stood as an NILP candidate in Foyle and if his 1,993 votes are added to those of PD, it amounted to 29 per cent of the total poll in the seats contested. In South Down, Fergus Woods came within 220 votes of unseating the Nationalist MP.

PD’s support ranged widely, from 9.2 per cent of the poll in Belfast Cromac (the only lost deposit) to 48.8 per cent in South Down. The average over the nine constituencies was 26.4 per cent. This was not strikingly different from the performance of other unsuccessful candidates with a civil rights record. Erskine Holmes of the NILP got 29 per cent of the poll in Belfast Ballynafeigh, Sheelagh Murnaghan of the Liberal Party got 14.8 per cent in North Down and another Liberal, Claude Wilton, got 35.1 per cent in City of Londonderry

Bernadette Devlin in South Londonderry achieved the best result in a Unionist-held seat, with 38.7 per cent of the poll, but this was almost the same as the Nationalist candidate who had fought the seat in the 1965 general election. In South Down, which included Newry, “the performance can best be comprehended less as a People’s Democracy achievement than as general Catholic support for a civil rights candidate.”

A new, more radical NICRA executive was elected, including two PD members, while four of the ‘Old Guard’ resigned in protest at the increased militancy of the movement.  This was partly in response to the repressive policies of the Unionist Government, which had introduced a new Public Order Bill, and partly by continuing attacks on civil rights demonstrations by the police.  In April a Westminster by-election in Mid-Ulster saw the PD candidate win the nomination as the anti-Unionist candidate, and Bernadette Devlin was duly elected with the biggest anti-Unionist majority since the seat was created in 1950.

The march to Derry, at a time when NICRA had called a truce, did not imply as profound a difference between it and the PD as might be supposed. One of NICRA’s leading members, Frank Gogarty, stated that they had been ‘blackmailed off the streets’ by loyalist intimidation and police repression. But they ‘would not remain off the streets forever’. The Government would have to give them a ‘definite timetable of reform’ or they would go back to the streets “and protest louder than ever”.

NICRA also felt obliged to extend its demands by changes in the political situation. It was not prepared to accept O’Neill’s promises and it wanted to keep up the momentum of the campaign. This made it necessary to make radical demands and to enter qualifying clauses on its former simple and clear-cut aims. A NICRA circular pointed out that the shortage of jobs and houses created a situation in which discrimination flourished, and demanded that the Stormont and Westminster Governments fund a crash house-building programme, while in areas of high unemployment the Government should start local industries as they had started the Forestry Commission.

It called for trade-union law to be brought into line with British law, for the disbandment of the B Specials and for the RUC to cease carrying revolvers. It had, in other words, adopted a number of demands that had been put forward by Peoples Democracy. Both organisations were opposed to Stormont’s new Public Order Bill, which made it necessary to give longer notice of parades and banned counter-demonstrations, sit-downs and the occupation of buildings.

This was clearly an attempt to impede the civil rights campaign and deny it legitimacy.  It was opposed by the new MPs elected out of the civil rights campaign but their failure to stop it simply repeated previous failures to prevent unionist repression through the Stormont parliament.  It was an important reason for the DCAC to relaunch the civil rights campaign in Derry, confirming the strength of the forces radicalising the civil rights campaign, affecting even in its ‘moderate’ sections.

The campaign appeared to have the support from the full range of forces it had previously encompassed, from the Nationalist Party to the Labour left.  At one sit-down protest John Hume insisted that “the politics of the street must continue until fundamental justice has been achieved”; but only a week later a repeat of the October 5 march in Derry was followed by clashes between Protestant and Catholic youths, and the other prominent MP Ivan Cooper declared that he would “press for an end to marches.”

A demonstration to re-create the January PD march from Burntollet was cancelled at the last minute with the resulting confusion prompting youths in Derry to carry out a sit-down protest that was then broken up by the RUC.   While this was happening loyalists confronted Catholic crowds in the centre of the city, which the RUC attacked leading to three days of ferocious rioting.  During the clashes some RUC pursued rioters through a house in the Bogside, severely beating several people who lived in it, including the father of the household, Samuel Devenney.  Part of the Bogside was evacuated while republicans organised defence committees and the moderates of the DCAC sought to avoid clashes between the Catholic population and the RUC.

The behaviour of the RUC, defence from their attacks and the end of Catholic support for it, or even tolerance of it, became the primary immediate issues.  The RUC, in the words of a senior English policeman, was ‘not a police force in the English sense.  It is a para-military organisation accountable to a minister.’  At this time around 10 per cent of the force was Catholic and, alongside the Orange Order, was an important pillar of the Unionist regime.

While, until the summer of 1969, most of the violence that had erupted had been confined to Derry, this now changed.  That the character of the problem had already changed in Derry, where the existing civil rights agenda of an end to discrimination had been to the forefront, showed that the rapid shift to one of defence from the RUC was inevitable given the thoroughly sectarian character of the state machinery and composition of the unionist regime.

Without satisfactory reform the civil rights movement would not and could not be prevented from going onto the streets, despite the misgivings of many ‘moderates’, but equally the unwillingness of the Unionist regime to grant the reforms meant their sectarian police force were placed in the way of protest.  The Stormont government’s Public Order Bill signalled that the Unionist Government were attempting to employ repression to substitute for the full reforms the civil rights movement demanded.  But this was to fail very quickly.

Back to part 8

Forward to part 10

In the shadow of Brexit

Back in May I wrote a post ‘It’s not about supporting Jeremy Corbyn anymore’, which stated it was about opposing Brexit, and ditching Labour’s disastrous support for it, poorly disguised in such a way as to piss off anyone with a strong view on the matter. I said after the European elections in which the Tories came fifth, with less than 10 per cent of the vote that –

“The Tories only need a new leader promising Brexit, with a bit more credibility, to have a hope of some recovery, and they’re electing one.  And if they fall short it will not be because Labour has surged forward but because Farage has managed to carry forward his success into a general election.”

But of course, Farage was pulled into line by those with the money and the only significant shift in Labour’s policy was support for a second referendum, except that I noted at the same time that “it’s not about a referendum – if Labour supported some version of Brexit to be approved by a referendum Corbyn would be politically as dead as a Monty Python parrot.”  Which he now is, because his promise to negotiate his own Brexit, and then put it to a vote without committing to supporting it, made no sense.  Then he defeated a motion to support Remain at the Labour conference while promising that a future conference would decide.

In a Facebook discussion I was admonished for not recognising that the gains of the Corbyn movement were a massively increased left membership, a sprinkling of new left MPs and an audience for anti-capitalist ideas.

That a mass membership was encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is clear, but it also became clear that for this leadership the role of the movement was to follow the leader, not to transform the Party into the social movement that many hoped and believed it should become.  That’s why a claim could only be made that there was a smattering of new left MPs.  This is as much the legacy of Corbyn as defeat in two elections and a divided and untransformed Party, with no clear successor never mind a good range of candidates from which the left membership could choose.

As for an audience for anti-capitalism, I believe in something which is so much more than this negative identification and that has for two hundred years gone a long way in demonstrating not only what is wrong with capitalism but also setting out the alternative.  Brexit itself is a sort of anti-capitalism, in the Lexit, reactionary, stop the development of modern capitalism sort of way that wants to go backwards to when the nation state set the framework of economic and social development.  The proclamation of anti-capitalism as a touchstone is a political retreat and confusion by the left and is consistent with such anti-capitalist phenomenon as Stalinism, and other reactionary populist politics that are inconsistent with the fullest development of capitalism but also antithetical to socialism.

While Corbyn might be leaving the stage, we continue to be under the shadow of his triangulated Brexit policy, including the narrative of a non-existent principle that we must respect a reactionary referendum result regardless of its consequences.  Also included is the idea of a Labour Brexit, one that will supposedly be progressive but bizarrely involves no commitment to supporting it, in fact a declaration of neutrality by the leader with further evasion through postponing a conference that would determine the Party’s position in any second referendum

These are only some of the contortions that have characterised Corbyn’s Brexit policy.  To declare surprise at his unpopularity in the election after such a catalogue of evasion is to audition for the role of one or all of the three wise monkeys.

The failure to openly and honestly fight for Brexit by the leadership, hiding behind six tests; the nonsense of a Labour deal with all the benefits of EU membership but none of the costs; weeks of talks with Theresa May to identify a common Brexit policy, and then claims that a deal could be agreed and voted on within six months (because the EU had agreed to Labour policy!), all this continues to confuse.

For what is most striking about Corbyn and his Brexit policy is not his opposition to Remain but his inability to argue for Brexit.  Like the small left groups who claim that explicit support for Brexit would have defeated the Tories, they fail to explain how all those who are happy to vote for the Tories and Brexit Party could be won to a Labour Brexit that would be denounced as a fraud; or explain what price would be paid in terms of the reactionary politics of nationalism and racism that would be necessary to adopt even to make the attempt.

And what would these groups expect the 68 per cent of Labour’s voters who voted Remain to do while such a policy was pursued, including those in the North of England – in the ‘traditional working class’ areas – who voted to Remain?  How could it ever become Party policy when an even greater percentage of the Labour membership support Remain?

The answer, of course, is that it couldn’t.  And because it couldn’t it wasn’t, although this did not prevent all these groups declaring the need for the impossible – open Labour support for Brexit – that they didn’t even fight for themselves. When was this openly presented as the policy to be supported, as opposed to all the duplicitous evasions listed above?

What exactly was Lexit?  What would it entail? For some it seemed not to matter after it was assumed it would happen – the detail was unimportant, only the economic policy of a future left British Government would matter.  For others it was all the benefits but none of the costs – membership of the customs union and Single Market but no free movement of people and no seat at the table that sets the rules because Britain could help set them from outside, or ignore them if it wanted.  For others it became no deal and trade on WTO terms, sometimes with the lie that these WTO rules meant no real change to the current trading arrangements for years. For others, supporting Brexit seemed only a matter of timing (it was an ok idea before but not now) and a question of who would lead the caravan across the desert and not where it was going.  No wonder there was no open fight inside the Party to win it to explicit support for Brexit.

So now we have a leadership contest where we are threatened with all this vacuous and reactionary nonsense again, with added soundbites and personality claims that only embarrass the listener.

And the obfuscation also continues.  The latest piece I’ve read is an attack on “obsessive Remainers” who have scored “a massive own goal” because they pushed for a second referendum and thereby brought about the victory of Johnson and a hard Brexit.

While it is arguable that a second referendum was not the way to stop Brexit – that was better carried out by a general election in which Labour committed to stopping it – the real claim is that a Labour Brexit was the way forward.  In other words, this is another Brexit-supporting proposition that doesn’t quite declare its love but criticises those who had the temerity to openly fight for Remain.  That this was far from a lost cause can be appreciated from the vote at the Labour conference before the election, when only some sharp practice prevented such a policy being adopted.

While the target is those who fought for Remain the argument is framed around the centrist opposition, represented by “Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, and Chuka Umunna [who] knew how to play the media and get their message across”, plus the Peoples Vote campaign.

Absent from the analysis are the millions of people this campaign mobilised who were far from all being supporters of the Labour right, and who represented a movement that a Brexit-opposing Labour Party could easily have challenged for leadership of, but which Corbyn through his absence demonstrated opposition.  Along with failure to democratise the Party, this abandonment of a progressive mass campaign to a right-wing leadership is the most criminal of Corbyn’s failings.

Absent also, is any appreciation of the mass support of the voters and members of the Labour Party who also opposed Brexit and are the key constituency defining the possibilities that socialists have to make any significant step forward.  Instead we are invited by supporters of Brexit to orient to a so-called traditional working class that no longer exists in its previous form because the industrial, social and political environment that created it was destroyed.

The article states that “It would be fatuous to scold liberals for not supporting Corbynism, a project that was never their own (although some did claim to support the kind of social-democratic policies that Labour spelled out in its election manifestos). But we can certainly blame them for undermining their own self-proclaimed goal: to stop Brexit . . .”   Scolding  liberals, however, is all that the article does, so it is doubly fatuous by the fact that the author isn’t concerned that Brexit be stopped, so why would anyone with such an aim pay any heed to it?

The hypothesis is put forward that “a so-called ‘soft-Brexit’ deal would have been a perfectly acceptable framework for Labour to carry out domestic social reforms: a step sideways, not a step backward”, a claim made not in order to prevent “rewriting history and shifting the blame”, but to define the next step forward, including the identity of the new leadership of the Party.

This claim is certainly less bold than the ‘jobs Brexit’ claimed by the leadership of the Labour Party but it is still false: the exit of the UK from the EU will put up barriers to migration, trade, investment and economic growth that will very definitely not simply be “a step sideways”. Only those on the left who think that stuffing capitalism or a capitalism in crisis is the objective (i.e. ‘anti-capitalism’) could mistake this as a step forward for the working class.

The best opportunity to achieve the ‘soft’ Brexit that the author considers acceptable was when “Labour came forward with its own platform for the Brexit negotiations that set out clearly the terms of a soft-Brexit deal. It was practical and achievable — and the leading EU officials said so publicly.”

Unfortunately, this “perfectly acceptable framework for Labour to carry out domestic social reforms: a step sideways, not a step backward” turns out to be modification of Theresa May’s deal.

This proposal involved five tests which included ridiculous ideas such as leaving the EU while having a say in the EU’s trade policy, and a claim that a customs union would allow frictionless trade, which is also nonsense.  It could not therefore, as it claimed, prevent a border inside Ireland.

Calls for ‘close alignment with the single market’ does not mean membership of the single market, which anyway would be impossible if the UK left the EU, but which then raises questions of what barriers would this Brexit cause the UK to fall behind, and how much would it assume of having your cake and eating it.  The proposal was for “clear arrangements for dispute resolution” but the EU has these and they’re not going to be subject to British influence.

It is claimed that this platform was “practical and achievable” but if Brexit has taught everyone anything it is that detail is the devil that cannot be ignored and that it isn’t practical and achievable unless it is explained, and it wasn’t.

So, it is not true that the EU considered that this Labour proposal was both practical and achievable, but rather simply a step forward in the right direction, a diplomatic way of opening negotiations that would sort out the detail and remove what nonsense elements were included.  The press interpreted this as a step towards the Norway option but apart from the enormous agreements required to replicate such an option for the very different UK economy, it would involve acceptance of EU rules, which is what is claimed to be the problem, and renunciation of any say in making these rules, which is the purpose of a social democratic government.  How would this have made any sense even if it had been “practical and achievable”?

Another example of the potential for a Labour ‘soft’ Brexit is given by reference to the alternatives to Theresa May’s deal voted on in the House of Commons.  It is noted that the closest to succeeding, losing by only four votes, was Kenneth Clarke’s ‘’customs union’ proposal.  But this, like the rest, got less votes than Theresa May’s deal and only got as close as it did because of abstentions.  Given the lack of clarity in the proposal any clarification was more likely to provoke opposition.

The paucity of these so-called alternatives that might have avoided the disaster of Johnson’s victory, as the article would have it, is precisely shown by the one that came closest to succeeding.  It was so vague it didn’t actually constitute a plan.

It didn’t touch on the single market so wouldn’t have addressed the backstop for Ireland that was the centre of the controversy.  Its customs union didn’t make clear whether it would be dynamically aligned with further development of the EU customs union, or whether the European Court of Justice would have jurisdiction, or whether it was meant as an attempt to go back to arrangements created in 1973 when the UK joined the EEC.  And it didn’t say anything about what arrangements would apply to the 80 per cent of the UK economy comprised of services.  But apart from that it could have been a winner?

While it might seem very passé to go through all this again, the argument about Brexit hasn’t gone away and is very far from being done.  The time given for agreeing future arrangements after officially leaving at the end of next month is not long enough to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal.  If any deal is made, or number of sector specific side-deals agreed, it will not be enough to maintain current levels of trade.  Jobs, living standards and employment will all suffer and the identity of the cause will not be hard to find. All Tory promises about nursing and police numbers, however counted, and of new investment in infrastructure, will be unaffordable, unless borrowing increases significantly, which would only cause its own problems of increased interest rates.

If, on the other hand, the transition period is extended, Johnson’s purpose in doing so will damage his credibility and he will come under pressure from the ultra-supporting Brexiteers.

All this will raise challenges to the new leadership of the Labour Party, which will have to do a lot better than its triangulation over the last three years.  Yet, the issue that defined the election, determined the defeat and will determine and define the next period, has not so far been placed clearly at the centre of the debate over who should be the new Labour leadership.

The policy pursued by Corbyn of pretending every other issue matters more, that the question has been settled, that everyone will move on, that tail-ending the Tories by making piecemeal criticisms while having no principled or oppositionist alternative, or any combination of these disastrous approaches, will allow all the problems stored up by Johnsons to be overcome, or at the very least prevent Labour taking advantage of Tory failures.

The majority of people rejected Johnson’s reactionary policies, including Brexit.  Labour can choose to represent this majority or chase after that minority who will become increasingly disenchanted with it and who will have only three alternatives to choose from.

The first is that pursued by the majority so far – forget about the promises of market access and easy trade agreements and accept only the hardest of exits as a real Brexit.  The Labour Party cannot win by appealing to the more and more radicalised reactionaries who will follow this course.

The second is acceptance of what will become increasingly apparent – that Brexit cannot deliver on its promises and was a mistake.  A soft-Brexit approach will become less convincing to Remainers as it appears more and more pointless and may become indistinguishable from Johnson’s policy, should he so choose.  In effect the Labour Party would be hostage to the vagaries of Johnson’s opportunism and lies.  Labour will get little credit for mild criticism of a policy seen to fail so thoroughly.

The third is that a section of Brexit supporters will retreat into political inactivity and apathy as their prejudices are dashed, at which point ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ will be blamed for the world not behaving as they think it should. Labour will not win by appealing to the prejudiced and deluded.

For all these reasons the lessons of the Brexit election need to be learned and the great schism in the left between those who have trailed behind this reactionary project and those who have opposed it will have to be settled.  Settling it will not be achieved by reconciliation of socialist internationalists to a successor Corbynista leader, who may simply follow the Brexit water down the plug-hole in ever decreasing and quickening circles.

Whoever is considered best to be the next leader and whatever their strengths and weaknesses, the left must prioritise opposition to Brexit and democratisation of the Party and judge the candidates on this basis.  This will involve examination of candidates’ platform and the forces ranged behind them.  If it is the Labour apparatus and union bureaucrats that is their base, these will determine the favoured candidates future policies.  It is not enough to seek the candidate most likely to defeat any soft left or openly centrist candidate because without opposition to Brexit and fulfilment of Party democracy the return of the right wing will only have been prepared and not prevented.

 

The North of Ireland’s Anti-Brexit Election

Vote count at Titanic Belfast

No sooner is the general election over but the media hails the beginning of talks to resurrect the Assembly at Stormont and the power-sharing Executive.  The election has been hailed as a dramatic change yet the same old solution that cannot find a problem it can solve is put forward again.

We are expected to forget the rampant incompetence and corruption that characterised previous Stormont attempts.  However, it’s not quite everything changes but everything remains the same, because at the same time as we wake up to groundhog devolution day we are also informed that, just perhaps, real change is on its way – ‘United Ireland’ trended on Twitter.

In part this might appear as a result of Brexit getting done under Johnson, which will hasten a Scottish referendum that will lead to Scottish independence – shattering the ‘precious’ union upon which Irish Unionism depends. In part, it is because of the results of the election in Northern Ireland, which for the first time ever has elected more nationalist MPs to Westminster than Unionist – 9 to 8.

But caveats abound.  Johnson will not get Brexit done.  The UK may leave the EU at the end of January but the transition period means nothing will change – except losing its vote in the EU – until it ends at the end of the year, which is not long enough to determine the new arrangements between the UK and the EU.  These will be contentious despite the Irish Taoiseach warmly welcoming the result of the election as removing a worrying source of instability for the Irish state and its economy.  The value of Irish shares may have soared upon the result, especially those of the banks exposed to the British economy, and one right wing politician may have welcomed the election of another, but Brexit is by no means sorted and the North of Ireland (indeed Britain itself) has just voted against it.

If the Scottish Government elected by the people demands another separation referendum then it should have it, without this the national oppression that Scotland does not currently suffer from would become real.  But Brexit will involve the same, if not even greater problems, for any separate Scottish polity that puts itself outside its main economic partner, with a hard border between it and a Brexit England and Wales.  The austerity necessary for a separate Scotland would be made worse; it is not therefore a given that the Scottish people will change its mind.

In any case socialists should oppose the erection of borders, which divide workers, and oppose nationalism that frustrates class solidarity in favour of national allegiance.  Already nationalism has many Scottish workers voting for a Party that covers its right wing politics with nationalist rhetoric.  This has unfortunately led many on the left to support its cause, perhaps not so surprising since some have also capitulated to Brexit; populist nationalism has been on the march in a muted form for longer than Boris Johnson.

So the outcome of Brexit and Scotland are not clear, but if the Withdrawal Agreement continues in some form then a real difference will be created between the North of Ireland and Britain and real harmonisation between North and South.  A loyalist campaign that attempts to stymie this is not out of the question, but it is likely to be more isolated than previous mobilisations against Sunningdale in the 1970s and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s.  It will struggle to identify meaningful targets (which normally leads to its default disposition of attacking Catholics) and the British State lacks the incentive to indulge it.

The election results themselves have been taken to represent another step towards a United Ireland through a border poll, but again the situation is not so straightforward.  Sinn Fein, which shouts loudest for such a poll – calling for the Irish Government to create an All-Ireland Forum to advance the cause, performed badly, dropped by 6.7 percentage points.  It stood aside in a ‘Remain’ alliance in three seats, which partially explains the fall, but it also gained from the SDLP withdrawing in North Belfast, which returned a new Sinn Fein MP.  From three out of four MPs in Belfast being Unionist we now have three out of four Nationalists.

It dropped votes almost everywhere else, in West Belfast to People before Profit and spectacularly to the SDLP in Derry where its reverse was stunning.  On top of terrible results earlier this year in the local and European elections in the South, Sinn Fein has major problems.  The shine has long since come off it, it has little positive to say, and its abstentionist policy to Westminster has just cost it votes in the North.  It might have been assumed that as Irish unity appeared closer Sinn Fein would grow and benefit, but the opposite could well turn out to be the case.

It is one thing to stand out for the traditional aspiration of the majority of the Irish people when it appears you are alone in this, quite another to do anything positive to achieve it when it appears to become a realistic prospect, at least some time that isn’t the distant future.  The closer to Irish unity the less relevant appears a Party with nothing much to say about how it should be achieved or how it would actually entail a new progressive Ireland.  Previously, the SDLP suffered because it demanded the end of the IRA’s unpopular armed campaign but Sinn Fein gained from the peace process because republicans and not the SDLP could make it happen.  Sinn Fein will not make Irish unity happen, certainly not in any progressive manner.

In this election the SDLP came back from the dead to win two MPs with huge majorities in Derry and South Belfast.  Their opposition to Brexit was certainly a major factor in the latter, assisted by the fact that the sitting MP was from the DUP and Sinn Fein and the Green Party had stood aside.  Its vote however was much more than this assistance and represented more than mobilisation of a Catholic/Nationalist vote.  On the face of it this strengthens the push for restoration of Stormont since the SDLP is arguably its greatest supporter, although the sectarian carve up that is the lifeblood of Stormont faces challenges when there is competition not only between Orange and Green but also within each camp.

This is also the case in the Unionist camp where the threat to the DUP has come not from the Ulster Unionist Party, which has no real reason for existence, but from the Alliance Party – the biggest winner on the night. Like the footballer that is never off the subs bench while the team is crap, they get better the less they play, and the worse the team gets.  Alliance has benefited from appearing to stand above the sectarian incompetence and venality at Stormont but there is no indication that greater immersion into the devolution it also earnestly supports will not reveal its inadequacies as it has the others.  Its apparent opposition to the inevitable workings of Stormont will dissolve as it becomes an increasing part of it.

This however is not the major point to make about the rise of the Alliance Party.  It declares itself neither Orange nor Green although it has its origins within Unionism and has a pro-union policy.  This used to be much more obvious than it is now but has receded as the question has lost it sharpness following republican acceptance of the constitutional status-quo.  Its avowedly non-sectarian unionism has reflected its historic base inside the Protestant middle class, with an added smattering of aspiring middle class Catholics.  ‘Middle class’ here is used in the not very scientific sense to mean better paid workers and those with relatively higher standards of living.

It is now the third party in terms of votes with 17.4%, compared to the DUP with 31.6% and Sinn Fein with 23.6%, continuing its upwards trajectory following its success in getting the third MEP slot in this year’s European elections alongside one DUP and one Sinn Fein.

Much has been made of the overt sectarian arrangements at Stormont being predicated on balancing the Unionist/Protestant bloc against the Nationalist/Catholic one. This includes a veto wielding petition of concern available to each, which is blatantly undemocratic and discriminatory when a large number of representatives are defined simply as ’other’, which includes the Alliance Party.

This Alliance vote is a reflection of, but not identical to, increasing numbers of people who do not identify as unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic.  The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that one in two identify neither as unionist or nationalist, although this seemed to me to be rather too big, confirmed by some colleagues in my office who are a generation younger than me and closer perhaps to those who might be sloughing off old identities.

This growth of ‘others’ dovetails with the growth of the Catholic population, which in the last census in 2011 reported 41% of the population as Catholic and 42% Protestant, with a Catholic majority among younger age cohorts.  Sectarian division is also influenced by the decreasing gap between Protestant and Catholic social indicators such as unemployment, and the obvious breakdown of large scale employment segregation. So society is changing in the North of Ireland, which gives credence to the idea that the union with Britain, by being less certain, is thereby closer.

Research has been done on the composition of this neither Orange nor Green population but I won’t go into it here.  Suffice to say that the majority of ‘neithers’ are in favour of the union with Britain, although one survey has reported that one third of Alliance voters have said that Brexit makes them more favourable to Irish unity.

What this shows, as if it needed pointing out, is that ‘other’ is not in itself a positive identity.  I am an ‘other’ in these terms, but I would never define myself as such because I am a socialist and do not define my views as simply other than Irish nationalism or Irish unionism.  It is pretty clear that the majority of ‘others’ do not have a coherent separate political identity beyond rejection of two major nationalisms suffused with religious identity.  And this is positive – as far as it goes.

But more importantly, this survey finding about Alliance voters shows that while ‘others’ do not define themselves as unionist or nationalist, there is no third position on the national question.  There are worlds of difference on how it might be solved, and how it might lead to more or less progressive outcomes, but increasing rejection of the old ideologies without a positive alternative leaves the old choice standing.

This does not mean that the growth of those rejecting the unionist and nationalist identities, probably because of the behaviour of the political movements that lead them, does not have an influence on the political situation or on prospective developments.  It has been remarked that these people will be pivotal in any border poll and will not be motivated by traditional war cries.  The majority are motivated by progressive impulses if only cohered in very primitive form (primitive as in undeveloped).  The struggle for a united Ireland will have to offer more than recovery of the fourth green field.

This does not mean that some economistic agenda is the way forward, for in essence this is still a political question that requires a political stand.  It is rather that what will become more and more important is what sort of transformational project will this political struggle involve – what sort of united Ireland is being fought for?

The setback for the DUP in the election is a blow to the most sectarian and reactionary Party and must be welcomed. The vote for the SDLP and Alliance is to a significant degree a vote against Brexit and again should be welcomed.  The shift of some unionists away from the parties of traditional Unionism is also a weakening of the unionist programme and acts to isolate the most extreme loyalist reactionaries, which again should be welcomed.

That Brexit has not overcome the traditional sectarian/political divide is not unexpected – in fact it is entirely to be expected that the reactionary politics of Brexit should find its natural base in unionism.  That opposition to Brexit has weakened the unionist parties and unionism is thus inevitable and once again to be welcomed.  Even the small gains by People before Profit could be welcomed were it not for the fact that it continues to fail to recognise the reactionary character of its support for Brexit and demonstrates an inability to learn from mistakes and correct them, which is more serious for it than the question itself.

What appears as significant political changes in the election are therefore, from a socialist point of view, relatively small steps forward.  They do however reflect more significant changes below the surface that socialists should be concerned to understand.

The Fall of the Red Wall

Related image

What do you do when you are leader of a Party and the vast majority of your members support a policy that you oppose?  Well, you can’t very well allow them to control the party can you?  So you can’t ensure it operates democratically.

What do you do when the majority of your voters also support that policy?  Well, you dissemble, confuse, appear to sit on the fence and declare neutrality.

In the case of the membership you first prevent them getting their way by stopping them voting on it at conference.  The next year you so manage the policy that is voted on that you can effectively continue to push your own, while of course appearing to do something different and pretending that the members got what they wanted.

But since the new policy does not make much sense the party membership are still not happy and come back to the next conference in the next year and vote again on what they want – and this time they win!  So what do you do now?  This time your friends say to the membership – ‘You Lost’ – and they start singing your name at the conference.  And it’s a victory!

For the rest?  Well, for them it’s then like being at a party where people start singing, and you don’t feel like joining in, but you’re made to feel your spoiling it for everyone, and spoiling the fun, if you don’t join in.  You really don’t want to be a party-pooper so you’re invited to suck it up.  After all, this leader has had it tough.

He’s been accused of all sorts of things that were so ridiculous that your first response might have been to ignore it. But the slander and smearing goes on and on and you want to have a square-go at the traitors inside the Party who are telling these outrageous lies, but the leader can’t trust you, so you’re not allowed.  Remember, the leader can’t very well allow you to control the party.  It’s a ‘broad church’, and just like in church it’s your job to listen to the preacher and then go out and do God’s work.

But this goes on and on, so the leader says he’ll do something about it and these terrible things will be stopped, and again and again you hear the same record.  Some people wonder why he’s saying the same thing about how bad it is, yet he’s saying it again. Why is he having to say it again?  Surely it’s been sorted?  He’s told to apologise and effectively he does, but if this happens again and again why is he apologising and nothing is changing?

Then I hear on the radio that the new manifesto is going to empower people, and I think to myself – WTF, really?  The only thing you have had the power to lead to ’empowerment’ is the membership of the Party you lead, and you’ve stood in the way of it.  Instead you’ve allowed all these reactionary shits to accuse you of nonsensical crimes.  The last time I viewed such a nightmare I was reading ‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka, and it didn’t end well.  And this one doesn’t look like it will either.

In the election you’re facing a compulsive liar, whose own supporters don’t even trust.  They don’t believe him, but they do agree with him, and they are going to support him. But many people have gotten fed up with you.  You’re supposed to be different – he is what he is.  You are not what you have claimed to be. You’re supposed to be a conviction politician, who embodies honesty and sincerity and many people can see that you haven’t embodied either.

The dam that that held your so-called ‘red wall’ has just sprung two leaks and the first one is the enormous one. Just like a dam that you have seen in the films, your wall of support doesn’t break open only at this point, and other fractures appear in the edifice, and water spurts out of every one of them, everywhere – a hundred and one different cracks appear and it seems as if there are lots of reasons why this wall is going to fall.  When it falls it might seem difficult to say which one is responsible for the whole thing collapsing.  Lots of people look for more and more deep reasons for the collapse, the better to demonstrate their appreciation of the enormity of the collapse. But really the one big crack was vital in creating the rest.

There is a particular risk in immediately seeking the most profound reason for what has happened, although it’s not inevitably wrong and does not invalidate the attempt, but it does involve a risk.  It’s the risk that the explanation becomes so deep and meaningful that it can convey the impression that nothing could have been done about it.  We could never have won, the pressure against the wall of the dam was just too strong.

And this can lead to feeling sorry for the leader, who has been up against it all this time.  And I would feel this way too except I, like millions of others, is soaking wet and praying I’m not going to drown further down the line.  You can feel sorry for the leader if you want, my attitude involves rather more colourful expressions of emotion.

The historic defeat of the Labour Party was the result of a swing to the Tories of just 1.2 per cent and a swing away from Labour of 7.9 per cent.  The Tories won it because Labour lost it.

It lost it primarily because it lost voters loyalty on the big question that mattered – Brexit.  The machinations around it infected everything else Corbyn did, just like the real Brexit will determine so much else in the real world; limiting what good is possible and spurring on everything nasty, cruel and reactionary.

Sky called it the Brexit election, the Labour Party complained that it wasn’t, but now the Party leaders admit it was – a bit late to recognise the obvious.  The Political Studies Association reported polls asking about the issue ‘that will help you decide your vote’ and it was Health – 47% and the Economy – 35%; only 7% said Europe.

But that was in 2016.  In 2019 63% said Europe, while Health was 43% and the Economy 9%.

I could get even more annoyed now because I really dislike stupidity, especially in those who have no business being stupid.  But it wasn’t really stupidity – the reactionary position on Brexit and all its calamitous concomitants, such as suppressing Party democracy, is a sort of politics: ‘socialism from above’ is the kindest way of describing it even though there is no such sort of socialism.   It’s why it might be better to describe it as ‘state socialism’, or much more accurately, better to call it social-democracy and Stalinism.  (In this respect what was also worrying was the impression given by many socialists that the radical aspects of a social democratic programme was really socialism.). But to get back to the point.

What we saw was the nationalist politics of Brexit devour its misguided children, exemplified by Denis Skinner losing his seat to someone better able than him to embody the reactionary logic of Brexit. Unfortunately, these people brought down the rest, the majority, who have always known that Brexit had to be opposed.

If we want to look at the weaknesses of British social democracy we could do worse that start here – the narrow nationalism of the British left going back to Tony Benn or even further to Manny Shinwell and Aneurin Bevan.  Their opposition to ‘Europe’ resting on the Sterling Area and the Commonwealth, a bogus commitment to internationalism that rested entirely on the relics of Empire.

These weaknesses have been imbued by the radical left supporters of Brexit who think using one less letter and replacing one other makes a difference.  These people share the same conception of socialism – state ownership and a national state to implement and defend it from foreigners.  Entirely disappeared from consciousness is that we should be uniting with ‘foreign’ workers against our own state and theirs.  In fact, for a socialist, no worker is foreign, foreign to us is the nationalism that seeks to divide us.  Just like the Shinwell’s of old they condemn the narrowness and racism of Europe for not embracing the world while sailing on a boat that doesn’t leave the shores of Dungeness.

Labour lost 2,585,564 votes from 2017 to this election but the media narrative of the working class deserting Labour over its failure to support Brexit is a continuation of the distortions and lies that has been their staple.  Early estimates claim that over 1.1 million of this reduced vote was Labour Remainers voting for other remain Parties while perhaps 250,000 Labour Leave voters also transferred their vote to these Remain parties.

Antipathy and opposition to the figure of Jeremy Corbyn also seems to have played a major role but this is a combination of very different things that became important precisely because one person could be the focus of all of them.  For more than one reason the leadership is to blame – making Corbyn the sort of Presidential figure to the exclusion of other leaders in the campaign is probably the least important.

Anti-Corbyn hostility combined the opposition of Labour leavers; those prey to the calumny of the mass media; the failure to openly explain and discuss massive policy proposals dumped on the electorate at the last minute giving rise to some cynicism, and most of all duplicity over Brexit and apparent failure to take a position.  What price the one-day conference to discuss the Party’s Brexit policy now?

We need to stop talking about the Corbyn project in the Labour Party because clearly that project didn’t include opposing Brexit and didn’t include empowering the membership, which remain vital to any future progress.

One take on the election had a wonderful quote, ‘Disappointment is a trifle.  Disappointment is a luxury we cannot afford. The dilemma is simple but imperative. Whether to submit to mere fortune or to understand and take action.’  Perhaps not enough for the politically uninvolved but a good enough starter for the rest of us.

The struggle remains to fight Brexit, which hasn’t ceased to be the reactionary threat to the working class it has always been.  ‘Get Brexit Done’ is another lie to join everything else associated with that project.  Lies are ultimately useless because sooner or later they collide with reality.  The issue is who pays for them.  If there is one saving grace from the result it is escaping the embarrassment of an attempted Corbyn Brexit.  The Tory Brexit will fail its supporters and Labour must fight it and all of its consequences, including the disillusionment that its ‘success’ will provoke.

The second is to demand and fight for a democratic Labour Party. The mass membership has proved to be right, even if only negatively, and it must be confident in saying so.  The debate about responsibility for the defeat is not a distraction from fighting the Tories but an indispensable requirement.  Get it wrong, or lose it, and that fight will be hamstrung.  What to do depends on what is accepted as what went wrong, and there must be no truck with those who want to deal with defeat by following those who either led it or caused it.  We don’t want to tack right in pursuit of nationalists and racists and we don’t want another Corbyn who didn’t know how to fight either.

 

Who will I vote for?

UK general elections mean something different in the North of Ireland, and have usually revolved around the national question, whether there should be a united Ireland.  Latterly, the division has been one of squabbling over the detritus of incompetence and corruption that is the life blood of the local devolved administration.

The scandalous nepotism and waste uncovered in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was the trigger for Sinn Fein to eventually pull the plug on its participation in the Executive, but only after continuing to hold onto the coat tails of the DUP proved untenable.  Now the republicans have made clear that the architect of the RHI scandal, DUP leader Arlene Foster, will not have to go after all.  Sinn Fein would be happy to have this more-than-usual unpopular Unionist leader back as First Minister.

So now, with only haggling over the spoils at issue, the question of importance might appear to be whether to endorse another round of the sectarian settlement.

This time however the main issue is the same as that in Britain, albeit with very different ramifications and with many thinking it’s the old one in disguise.  It’s a Brexit election in the North. Just as it is a Brexit election in Britain; and when it comes to deciding how I am going to vote it is this that will determine whether, and who, I will be voting for on Thursday.

Brexit was supported by the majority of Protestants and opposed by the vast majority of Catholics, with the former voting Leave 60 / 40 and the latter voting Remain 85 / 15.  In terms of declared political identity the difference were even more marked, with 66% of Unionists supporting Brexit and 88% of nationalists supporting Remain.  Among those who defined themselves as neither Unionist or Nationalist – as ‘Other’ – the support for Remain was 70%.

Unionist support for Brexit is perfectly consistent with identification with an imperial nationalism and illusions in the power of Britain in the world, upon which their political position has always primarily rested.  It is not consistent with the real position of Britain in the world, which has been rammed home – to unionism’s discomfort – by Boris Johnson’s acceptance of Northern Ireland being de facto within the EU customs union and single market.  The same ideological blindness infects the same core constituency of the DUP as the Tories in Britain, while the pretence that they got Brexit right has been maintained despite the DUP having been shafted by Johnson.

If this was to be the position of the North of Ireland upon UK exit then it would mark a significant political defeat for unionism and a step towards a united Ireland.  But one, or even two steps, do not take you to your destination; although it points to one possible direction by which an objectively progressive resolution of the national question can be implemented by reactionary forces – the joint efforts of English nationalism that has no interest in Ireland and the European Union and the Irish State, which are progressive only relative to the former.

Much has been made by Sinn Fein of a border poll and increased support for a united Ireland because of Brexit but there is still no majority for a united Ireland and for that majority to arise the nationalist population has to grow significantly and/or the benefits of a united Ireland have to be demonstrated.  A border poll is not in itself an answer.

It is ironic that People before Profit (PbP) trumpet their differences with Sinn Fein but present a border poll in exactly the same way; while adding the vacuous call for a socialist Ireland, which means nothing outside of a wider programme that has to be internationalist to be socialist.

They have complained of Sinn Fein dirty tricks in putting up posters beside PbP ones stating that ‘People before Profit – Still Support Brexit’, which must be the first time a party has condemned a rival for putting up posters declaring its own policy.

Their complaint of course is that people will interpret this as support for the current Brexit, but unfortunately for them and for the rest of us a reactionary Brexit is the only one possible.  The current Tory Brexit was the only one proposed in the referendum – that they voted for – and the only one put forward now for implementation.  And it is still the case that People before Profit support leaving the EU – Brexit – and still see it as progressive.

So, if they now complain it is only because they know that the only Brexit in town is regarded by everyone as reactionary, and People before Profit condemns itself by not accepting that it is making a gross mistake by continuing to support this reactionary step backwards.

PbP complains that Sinn Fein allowed benefit cuts by agreeing that the decision on welfare should be handed back to the Tory Government in Westminster.  But this is exactly what it is doing by supporting Brexit and handing the power to inflict much greater damage on working people – throughout the UK – to an even more rapacious Tory administration that is salivating over the deregulated dystopia that is planned after Brexit.  There is no Brexit on earth that will not lead to cuts in welfare and attacks on pay that PbP claim they alone will fight.  The greater dependence on the State sector for employment in Northern Ireland will mean a greater impact from the cuts to this expenditure, which will be considered perfectly fine by a project sailing on the winds of English nationalism.

Whatever the benefits and drawbacks of the precise arrangements for the North under Brexit, it is not designed to further the interest of Irish workers: this much must be obvious even to PbP.  The same right-wing views associated with Brexit in Britain are reflected also in the North of Ireland, with those supporting Brexit more likely to have reactionary views on immigration, on the marriage rights of same-sex couples, and support for the most sectarian political parties.

A Brexit that will leave the North largely within the EU trading arrangements will be less damaging than a hard border within the island, but it is obvious that this is a more realistic way to prevent a hard border than a Brexit with PbP protests at how unfair it all is; and that no Brexit at all is the best solution of all.

Brexit has also been opposed because it is claimed that it will raise sectarian tensions, which means that it will upset many loyalists and may lead it their violent mobilisation.  To argue this however is to accept the Unionist veto on progressive change that has made the Northern State the political slum that it is and has always been.  There is no step forward that will not excite the opposition of loyalism.  The Protestant support for Remain should instead be viewed as an objective acceptance that Unionism does not represent their long-term interest; this progressive step should be supported rather than seek to pander to the most reactionary sections of the Protestant population.

So, if Brexit is the issue, who shall I vote for?

A couple of months ago I bumped into a Sinn Fein supporter I have known for years who after a couple of minutes launched into a defence of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy in relation to Westminster.  We hadn’t discussed politics up to then and I just listened to his poor apologetics for an obviously indefensible position. It has been widely criticised in Ireland and his defensiveness should not have been a surprise.  For a movement that was so wedded to theological shibboleths, from the IRA army council being the legitimate government of Ireland; to abstention from the Dail and Stormont; to not recognising the courts even though it meant longer sentences; to the sanctity of armed struggle; it’s as if one totem of their republican credentials must be retained to convince themselves they are still the republicans of old.

But this is a long way of saying there’s no point opposing Brexit by voting Sinn Fein because Sinn Fein will not be voting against it.  In the event of a Westminster hung parliament the SF position should be strung up with it.

Since Sinn Fein have stood down in my constituency, I don’t have to bother with considering these arguments.  Sinn Fein have withdrawn their candidate while the SDLP have withdrawn theirs from North Belfast to give Sinn Fein an uncontested Nationalist in that constituency.  The ‘Remain’ alliance that has justified these actions can be denounced as purely sectarian solidarity, except that the Green Party has also stood aside and the SDLP candidate has put opposing Brexit to the fore.

The Alliance Party has not stood aside and is also anti-Brexit, and of course also claims to be non-sectarian.  It is also however a unionist party in all but name and has rightly been described as the party of the British Government’s Northern Ireland Office.  The sitting MP is from the DUP and of course a supporter of Brexit.

So, in this election I will be voting against Brexit by voting for the Stoop Down Low Party, as it was sometimes disparagingly called (a long time ago).  And I never thought I would do that.

It is necessary to vote against Brexit and necessary to have that vote carried forward into Westminster.  It is justified also in order to weaken, however slightly, the most reactionary and sectarian major party in the North, the one that has thrown its weight behind Brexit and all the reactionary politics that that project encompasses.

 

 

 

‘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