From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ 6 – the Civil Rights Association

One hundred delegates attended the founding conference of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) on 9 April 1967, electing a thirteen person steering committee made up of trade unionists, the Campaign for Social Justice, Communist Party of Northern Ireland, republicans, and the Ulster Liberal Party.  One Young Unionist was also co-opted later.  Its constitution was based on that of the British National Council Civil Liberties, now called Liberty.

The NICRA constitution of 1967 made no explicit mention of either voting rights or discrimination and its five objectives were stated in rather general terms:

(1) To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens

(2) To protect the rights of the individual

(3) To highlight all possible abuses of power.

(4) To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association

(5) To inform the public of their lawful rights.

These objectives avoided the direct issues of sectarian discrimination in housing and employment, the issue of ‘one man, one vote’ and the particular repression enshrined in the Special Powers Act.

The demands, coupled with the inspiration for the constitution, indicated that the new body, like organisations reviewed in the previous post, did not intend to be a campaigning organisation that would mobilise on the streets but a representative one, dealing with individual cases and focusing on defence of existing rights.

With this conception of its role it was destined for the same ineffectiveness and disappointment as the CSJ, and the resolutions and meetings held previously by the NILP and trade unions.  As one prominent participant, Fred Heatley put it – “the first eighteen months was a time of frustration.”  Letters to Stormont were dismissed after delay and two representatives were turfed out of a police station after trying to make representations, “but the most annoying aspect of the early period was the lack of real interest shown by our first council members – at times we couldn’t muster up the required six members for a quorum at the monthly meetings.”  A body that couldn’t get its leaders to a monthly meeting was hardly going to get masses of people onto the streets.

Some changes to the membership the next year appeared to make no difference.  What did make a difference  was a minimal responsiveness to what was happening outside and its effective co-option by these more powerful forces that were stirring.  It was not NICRA that propelled civil rights to the top of the political agenda but the stirring of political forces that pushed NICRA to the fore, against the wishes of some of its earliest leaders.

The Unionist Government’s proscription of the Republican Clubs, the political organisation of republicans in the North, and a ban on their demonstrations, clearly came within the ambit of NICRA’s declared objectives.  So one of its first public actions was to oppose proscription, with Betty Sinclair of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland attempting to avoid being seen to endorse the politics of the republicans by claiming that the Unionist proscription could threaten the Orange Order as well!

The banning of marches and the defiance of such bans could not be seen as incidental to the campaign for civil rights. Challenging the restrictions on protest and the use of mass mobilisation to exert political pressure was one of the key goals of many of those within the movement, explicitly stated in the NICRA aim of ‘freedom of speech, assembly and association’. It was part of the logic of civil rights and its early prominence was anticipation of the explosive issue it was quickly to become.

It was the one NICRA objective that spelled out its requirements in quite specific terms – for ‘freedom of speech, assembly and association’. While there is a tendency sometimes to pass quickly over this, it indicated that repression and state restrictions on protest were a central issue even before the marching campaign began. The Unionist government enjoyed extensive repressive powers under the Special Powers Act, including internment and the power to ban assemblies, marches, publications, and parties.  All of these became crucial in future events and ‘the Troubles’, indicating the continuity between the civil rights campaign and the political campaigning that continued even into the period of the Troubles, which is now remembered solely for political violence.

The official history of NICRA states that the association began to realise in early 1968 ‘that a ban on their demonstrations was an effective government weapon against political protest’ and that marches would provide a more effective way of exerting political pressure than letter-writing.  But even then, it was not from within NICRA that the first civil rights march arose.

The first demonstration arose from protests against the allocation of a house in Caledon, outside Dungannon, to a nineteen-year old Protestant and the eviction of a Catholic family who had squatted in it.  It was the initiative of Nationalist MP Austin Currie who proposed a march from Coalisland to Dungannon, receiving the sponsorship of NICRA after some delay through support from the CSJ and republicans and despite opposition by Communist Party member Betty Sinclair.

In the event it was attended by about 2,000 and faced a counter-protest of around 1,500 loyalists.  Ian Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Volunteers announced a rally at the same time and place as the civil rights meeting at the end of their march in what they regarded as Protestant territory – a common means of stopping parades.  The police re-routed the civil rights march to the Catholic part of the town but NICRA refused, since this would have implied that theirs was a sectarian demonstration, and in the end there were only minor clashes with the police.  The march had a distinctly nationalist colouring, which was pretty much inevitable given the character of the population demonstrating, but was regarded as a success.

Shortly afterwards Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) approached NICRA with a proposal for a march in Derry. DHAC was a coalition of left wingers in the NILP and radicals in the Republican Clubs.  NICRA agreed to sponsor it as well but it was the left in Derry that had responsibility for organising it, supported by the Young Socialists in Belfast.

The demonstration was to start across the bridge in the Waterside, considered the Protestant side of the town and the demonstration was banned by the hard-line Stormont Minister Bill Craig, even though a loyal order event that had previously been announced had been withdrawn.

The demonstration did not reach the 5,000 hoped for by the organisers and the local paper estimated only 350 to 400 took part, with a quarter of them students from Belfast, although swelling later to about 1,000. At its front rank were later leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and a number of British Labour Party MPs.

Famously, the march was attacked by the police and part of the attack recorded by Irish television and replayed in dramatic pictures relayed across Britain and Ireland.  For many, this was the start of the civil rights campaign, and for many the inevitable slide to the Troubles.  A later official British report into the events of the day found that four policemen had been injured and a further seven during later clashes on the City side, while seventy-seven civilians were injured, mostly with lacerations to the head.

From the moment that the RUC baton-charged the march in Derry in October 1968 repression of protest became a central mobilising issue, but did not yet dominate the objectives of the demonstrations themselves, which still demanded civil rights, now captured in rather clearer and pithy language that the original objectives of NICRA. This reflected the fact that the civil rights movement was still on the political offensive despite the attempt to baton it off the streets.  Unlike later struggles around military repression, the opposition to the repression of civil rights marches did not impose a defensive stance on the movement.  Its civil rights demands still defined a movement on the offensive.

This meant that the movement had not become simply a traditional nationalist one – the view of the Unionist Government and many Protestants – that it was another republican plot to destroy the Unionist State.  This was ensured by the unity that existed inside the campaign around the civil rights agenda, which although it contained nationalists as its mass base also included the radical left as a socialist component.

It was nonetheless a movement that challenged unionist domination and the unionist monopoly on political power, which was one of the main reasons why even liberal unionists steered clear of it. So while there were prominent Protestant figures involved, the movement was overwhelmingly composed of those from a Catholic background.  Definition as a socialist did not exclude one from unionist charges of anti-Protestantism but rather confirmed one’s involvement in a conspiracy that stretched from republicans to communists. In any case, while socialists might be prominent they were never numerous enough to determine the way the movement, or those who supported it, were perceived and how they would react to repression.

The lack of a large Protestant support not only removed any potential constraints on Unionist leaders or loyalist organisations but severely weakened the socialist perspective of using civil rights as a means of uniting Catholic and Protestant workers. The socialist imperative of non-sectarianism did not have an immediate payback in terms of winning Protestant support but instead sought its justification in terms of the tactics to be employed by the movement (mass action) and much more radical long-term aims (workers unity) with therefore a much longer term payback.

In the meantime, those who most loudly declared the civil rights campaign a Catholic/Communist conspiracy against Protestants were involved in their own conspiracy to prevent the campaign growing and developing one of their own, one that would ensure sectarianism continued to enforce its division.

The mid-1960s may have seen efforts, eventually successful, to create a civil rights campaign, but it also saw the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the rise of Ian Paisley.  By the time of the creation of NICRA the UVF had already murdered and Paisley had inspired riots.

Back to part 5

Welcome to my World

Image result for boris johnson and dup

When I discovered that Boris Johnson’s proposals for a new exit deal from the European Union would require the approval of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, I thought to myself – welcome to my world!

The thought of the Unionist veto applying not only to this little corner of Ireland but also to the whole UK and even to the rest of Europe – wielded by that very incarnation of reasoned moderation and altruistic benevolence – the DUP!

What poetic justice that all the rational and sensible advocates of just such an arrangement in my miniature polity were now invited to subject themselves to the same enlightened principle of majority rule, while acknowledging the limitless legitimacy of Unionism and its glorious traditions.  The rules of trade between the entire UK and the EU Single Market would be exposed to the approval of the DUP; and just in case they had all been on a fully paid up holiday – paid for by some generous dictator – they could change their minds every four years.

Every four years the rest of Europe would wait with baited breath while the DUP decided whether it wished to continue “regulatory alignment” with the Single Market, knowing that the EU had agreed with the British Government proposal for “a firm commitment (by both parties) never to conduct checks at the border in future.”  The rest of the world would also hold its breath to see if, given EU unhindered access to the UK market and UK unhindered access to the EU Single Market, they might not also employ world trade rules to demand similar unimpeded entry.

I pictured horrified faces in the offices of State across Europe and in the corridors of the Brussels bureaucracy.  But surely they would continue to show their solidarity with the Irish Government and the Irish member State?  And surely since this state has considered such a mechanism so good that the whole EU-UK exit deal had to revolve around protection of the Good Friday Agreement, which made unionist consent a bedrock principle of the one holy and indivisible peace process, this couldn’t be such a bad idea?

The excellence of such arrangements is so obvious – who could demur to such an obvious meretricious solution?  So, who then could dispute the reaction of the DUP to criticism of this arrangement from the Irish Government?

Of course, it would have to be admitted that DUP denunciation of Irish Government leaders seemed a teeny bit hypocritical, when it stated that Simon Coveney was “obstructionist and intransigent” and that he exhibited “a majoritarian desire to ride roughshod over unionism.”  Similarly, it might seem slightly awry for the DUP to say that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were “ramping up the rhetoric” and that the former would “go down in history as the Taoiseach who restored a hard border.”

I have to admit I wasn’t sure if this last accusation was actually a complaint, or whether it was only in the sense of saying – that’s our job.  In any case, with such comments, and Boris Johnson promising to be a model of “gelatinous emollience”, and Jeremy Corbyn saying that “no Labour MP could support such a reckless deal”, I thought the whole world had turned on its axis in the wrong direction.  It was as if there was a new eleventh plague, in addition to frogs going “up on you and your people and all your officials” threatened in Exodus, one that would prove the truth of the DUP’s almost biblical politics.

Of course Marxists want the world turned upside down and now it seemed as if it was, maybe just not the way we might have wanted, although some who describe themselves as Marxists, but who support Brexit, seem to believe that turning things upside down is not only necessary but also sufficient – no matter how the fan has spread the shit, as long as it has hit it.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the deal proposed by Boris Johnson is the sort of dog’s dinner that any sensible dog would turn down.  The EU saying it is “unconvinced” is like a lottery winner saying he’s not persuaded of suicide just yet.  Saying it “did not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop” is true, in the sense that the remaining ‘gap’ is similar to me entering the marathon at the Olympics to be informed that Woody Allen was correct when he said that “80 percent of success is showing up.”

In other words, the proposed protocol cannot be considered as a serious candidate for a deal acceptable to the EU, and Johnson knows it. This is then believed to be evidence of his desire for a no deal, but given the safety net provided by the parliamentary opposition through the Benn Act requiring him to ask for an extension, this is not the case.

Johnson has been able to put together a proposal that commentators knowingly note is not a proposed deal with the EU but with the ultra-Tories, Brexit Party and DUP; a deal that supports his Brexit credentials in the upcoming general election.

It also has enough scope, given Johnson’s idea of consistency, for further amendment after any return to Government following an election to allow him to strike a deal with the EU. The detail, so far unpublished, might provide clues to this possible direction of travel.

Removing the DUP veto with some nebulous consultation with the Irish natives in the North will suffice to replace the ridiculous notion that a zombie assembly will dictate the integrity of the EU’s Single Market; and strengthening the Irish Sea checks would be necessary to allow the North to be in a separate customs territory with the EU.

Meanwhile the left in Ireland continues with business as usual, rolling out the same solutions that they have been advocating for decades but without the least prospect of them being applied to meet the problems that are arising right now.

So, the Socialist Party recognises that “a no-deal Brexit will bring enormous hardship for working-class people. Reports, including from the government, have indicated that anywhere from 40 -100,000 job losses can be expected in the south of Ireland.”  But all it can do is call upon the trade union movement to carry out an ‘action plan’ for which it has shown not the slightest sign of planning to act.  How could this be considered a real alternative to job losses, as opposed to the usual propaganda?

The Party calls for nationalisation and a break with the system without it registering that nationalisation is not a break with the system and is not socialist. The Party has just undergone another split but with neither side mentioning this approaching “enormous hardship” in their statements.  If they can’t take their own warnings seriously . . .

People before Profit criticises Unionists for wanting a hard border but not for Unionist support for what is giving rise to this hard border.  Instead it blames the EU and the Irish Government – “both the EU and the Irish government will claim that they are not to blame for imposing this border – the responsibility lies with Britain.  But once they erect border posts on the Southern side, this will give the British Tories the excuse to follow suit. It will not matter then who started it – we will have to live with a strengthened form of partition.”

Who, or rather what, started it was of course Brexit. People before Profit state that the DUP’s Sammy “Wilson and his Tory friend Johnson should be told that there will be mass peaceful civil disobedience to take down many of the border posts they erect.”

But how would this prevent the thousands of redundancies due to the import of cheaper products originating outside the EU that might come in through the North; or the cheaper imports to Britain that Irish producers cannot compete with; or the decline in demand from the UK as its economy declines?  How would taking down customs posts avoid the need for certification of regulatory and customs checks that business will require to ensure that final sale to consumers or wholesalers demonstrates compliance with safety and other regulatory requirements?  How will turfing these posts avoid all the costs that will put small business out of business?  Protest politics, to which this left is in thrall, has no answer to how to actually run a society as opposed to just allowing people to express how unjust it is.

When this politics does actually look to an alternative it calls for the politicians and state it declares to be the problem to provide the solution, through ‘pressure’ and, of course, nationalisation.  One might have thought that the role of nationalisation in saddling the Irish people with the gambling debts of the banks would have made them think twice before repeatedly trotting out nationalisation as a working class solution.  But apparently not.

It is obvious to everyone but this left that the solution to the problems created by Brexit is not to have Brexit at all.  But, of course, these people supported Brexit and are responsible for it.  That they don’t like its results, that they say it isn’t what they voted for (and you don’t hear them say this very often anyway), is neither here nor there.  Who cares what was going through their heads when they voted for Brexit?  What they thought they were voting for was not what was on offer, but they still voted for it, and what’s more, their claims not to support it is belied by their continued support for it!

The objective logic of the reactionary character of Brexit imposes itself on both its left and right supporters through the fantasy character of their promises and their professed plans to make it work.  Johnson is by all accounts not convinced Brexit is a good idea but he needs it, at least for now, to achieve his personal ambition through satisfying the dying fantasies of the Tory faithful.  So we have the dog’s dinner of a Protocol, which the EU refuses to take seriously.

The DUP supported Brexit because it chimed with all their backward instincts while cleaving to the imagined power of a once-mighty imperial Britain they regard as their only bulwark to their reactionary position in Ireland.  But they also understand that Brexit has weakened the appeal of Unionism in the North and have shifted to accepting some regulatory checks down the Irish sea.

The non-solutions to Brexit put forward by the Brexit supporting left demonstrates that they too have no way for this support to deliver on their declared objectives.  If they took their politics the least bit seriously, they would be praying that Jeremy Corbyn deliver his ‘good’ Brexit.

This however would demonstrate their own impotence and dependence on the reformist politics their existence is meant to be a standing repudiation of. It would also tie them to the fortunes of a failing project that is failing precisely because of its support for Brexit.  Were Corbyn’s proposed deal to be achieved it would be on the basis of an agreement with the EU devil and all its creations – the Single Market and Customs Union.  It would be Brexit in name only and this is no more what this left claims it wants than do the ranks of the Tory and Farage parties.

Brexit cannot deliver what its supporters claim.  How appropriate then that it should seem to founder on that other great failure – the Good Friday Agreement.  But illusions die hard.  To paraphrase something meant to have been said by Keynes, some people can remain irrational longer than their illusion can remain in existence.