Civil rights and socialist strategy 1 – what was civil rights for?

The civil rights movement, considered as those that sought mass participation, was disparate in organisation and uneven in strength, including geographically across Northern Ireland.  It consisted, inter alia, of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (including its sponsoring organisations), various organisations in Derry including the Citizens Action Committee, and Peoples Democracy, as well as numerous local initiatives coloured by local circumstances.  This heterogeneity reflected unity around the immediate demands and fundamental differences over end goals.  Above all the movement was short-lived and none of the perspectives behind support for civil rights was able to see their particular view confirmed.

For example, the middle class leadership that later formed the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) sought a partnership with the Unionist regime in Stormont and the solution of the issues raised by civil rights through local parliamentary reform, in which the legitimate and democratic aspirations of the Catholic minority would be respected following pressure from the movement and from Westminster.  The increasing use of violent repression, the slowness and limited character of reforms, and the priority given to support for the regime by the British Government meant this strategy collapsed.

Republicans who were later to become the Official Republican Movement, and its allies, thought of civil rights as a means of removing obstacles to the unity of workers in the North.  There is nothing wrong with this view since it is obvious that no political unity could be achieved while accepting the inequality between Protestant and Catholic workers, which was fundamental to their disunity.

They were correctly criticised by others on the Left for not putting such unity within the framework of the unity of all of Ireland’s workers, not just in the North but between North and South.  But civil rights didn’t address this problem and for the Officials the necessary first step was therefore progress within the North, and given their statist view of the road to and content of socialism – deriving from Stalinism – this meant reform of the Northern State.

The Provisionals, which did not exist during most of the period covered in the previous series of posts, did not have much use for the civil rights movement since for them its primary function was to demonstrate the irreformable nature of the Northern State, which could only be destroyed by the armed struggle of the IRA.

For the radical left, civil rights was also viewed as a means to unite the working class, but as part of a revolutionary process and not, like the Officials, one of reform.  There were a number of ways in which this could be conceived, including that it was necessary to put forward a socialist programme, sometimes concieved as transitional demands, within which civil rights was only one component.  Peoples Democracy raised left wing demands and slogans as part of its support and participation in the civil rights movement and recognised the importance of uniting workers North and South.  Unfortunately, their symbolic march from the North to the South in 1969 demonstrated not only the weakness of socialists but of the grounds for working class unity between the North and South.

This might seem to be a flawed judgement, since the largest membership organisation in Ireland, North and South, was the trade union movement with, for example over 200,000 members in the North.  However, as we have seen in these earlier posts, the official movement may have passed resolutions that supported civil rights but its leadership never fought for its members to campaign for them, either by setting up its own campaign or supporting NICRA.

Despite its moderate demands and determinedly non-sectarian purpose no trade union affiliated to NICRA, and when a sectarian pogrom blew up in August 1969 the trade unions stood four-square behind the Unionist state.  The working class, as in all developed capitalist societies, has potentially enormous power but this potential has never been fully expressed and the working class was politically divided.

To say that working class unity was necessary to destroy sectarianism is simply to say that working class unity was necessary to achieve working class unity.  In other words, such a perspective doesn’t get you very far.

It has often been proposed that a programme weighted more towards ‘class’ demands was necessary to win Protestant workers, who might argue that the inequality that was claimed to exist wasn’t doing them much good and that equality of poverty was not a sensible way to win them over.  Unfortunately, there were real inequalities between the working class of each religion and this was something many Protestants were unwilling to acknowledge or to accept the significance and importance of.

For some, acceptance of the demands of the civil rights campaign meant accepting the legitimacy of Catholic grievances and so their responsibility, or complicity, in letting it happen.  This challenged both liberal pretensions of Britishness and more extreme views about Catholic disloyalty. It is also not the case that Protestant workers opposed the demand for civil rights because they saw it as a Trojan horse towards a capitalist united Ireland.  The imperialist and monarchy-supporting Unionist tradition was and is reactionary across the board and opposed a united Ireland whether it was socialist or not; in fact communism was as dirty a word as Republicanism for the vast majority of Unionist workers.

The view that demands that challenged the ills of capitalism should be primary left open how important should be considered the civil rights denied to Catholics. When this was put up to the labour movement through a campaign made up overwhelmingly of working class and poor Catholics it became a choice of whether to participate, and attempt to lead that campaign, or stand aside.  The labour movement chose the latter and the excuse that the civil rights campaign was not the way to do things rings hollow when no other way was put forward and previous more sedate means had ignominiously failed.

It is not accidental that the view that civil rights was not the issue, but general want and poverty, was argued at different times by hardliners in the Unionist Government who wanted promises of job creation etc to defuse demands for civil rights; the middle class leadership of the Derry Citizens Action Committee who appreciated the poverty that existed and wished to take the edge off confrontation with the Unionist regime and seek and accommodation with it; and various left figures who sought to turn the underlying shortage of jobs and housing etc. into a struggle against these deprivations and for a socialist solution.

This last view is only true at a certain level of abstraction, i.e. when one discounts the actual grievances around inequality which existed and passes over the actual political struggle and campaigns that prevailed.  It also ignores that the demand for civil rights challenged sectarianism directly, and all of the above recoiled for different reasons and to differing extents from this reality and what it then entailed.  For Unionist hardliners the reason was the integrity of their regime; for middle class Catholics the possibility of compromise with this regime, and for some on the left the unwillingness to accept the real mass support for the regime among Protestant workers.

The radical left inside the campaign did try in various ways to raise wider economic and social demands, explaining their opposition to the capitalist Southern State and support for jobs, houses and decent wages for everyone.  This message was carried forward through propaganda, marches, meetings and elections.  In recollections by all the left leaders involved at the time, whatever their disagreements then and now, it is clear that the necessity for such an approach was understood and acted upon.  These forces however were too small and the working class too divided and in thrall to unionism and nationalism for their actions to succeed.

Forward to part 2

Back to last part of history of the civil rights movement

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