Civil rights and socialist strategy 2 – fighting for reforms

The long history of sectarian division; support for imperialist rule by many Protestant workers; and illusions in different variants of Irish nationalism by Catholic workers, is the reason why I stated at the start of the previous post  that the most significant weakness of the civil rights movement was that it was short-lived: the sectarian character of the Northern State immediately tested the small movement, and with the intervention of the British State, effectively destroyed it.

So there was no prolonged period in which a mass civil rights movement could struggle to win over the participation of the labour movement or sections of it, which really means winning over significant numbers of Protestant workers; this movement proclaimed its own unity only by not challenging political division.  We should also be clear that workers unity was not possible by relegating this struggle to a still-to-be-born united workers struggle for socialism.  Unity would not have come from waiting for the labour movement to act before acting outside it because the labour movement didn’t even act when a non-sectarian movement was created and did act.

This chronic weakness, which existed at the all-island level, where the whole Irish trade union movement was also not mobilised, demonstrates how far away the grounds were for a socialist solution.  Yet most of the radical left considered that what was necessary was a socialist struggle and what was posed was a fight for revolutionary politics against the explicit reformism of the Official republicans and Communist Party.  The Northern State could not be reformed and the fight was one against partition and for a Workers’ Republic.  This perspective needs some unpacking.

We have already seen that one version of it is the view that economic and social – ‘class’ demands – should have been brought to the fore and the key to socialism was winning over the labour movement.

A second version is that since the North is irreformable the struggle for reforms should be superseded by the fight for a united Ireland and a Workers’ Republic, in which case demands for reform such as civil rights should also be superseded or at most given a subsidiary role, in perhaps detonating the struggle or being only one subsidiary part of it.  In this view the demand for civil rights does not (certainly automatically) unite workers but exposes the need to destroy the Northern State, whose existence determines and ensures the division.

The struggle for democracy shows the need for a struggle against the state and for socialism – a process of permanent revolution whereby the state’s inability to deliver democracy exposes the need to destroy it, which can only be achieved through a Workers’ Republic since the capitalist Southern State also does not wish to challenge British rule (which stands behind the Unionist state) and seeks stability through continued partition.

In this view the shift in the struggle from civil rights to one against the State itself is a progressive one, moving from the illusion that reforms can be achieved and are sufficient to an explicit opposition to an irreformable state.  This brings closer workers appreciation that the struggle commenced can only be successfully concluded as a struggle for a Workers’ Republic as opposed to a united capitalist Ireland.  The demands of the struggle become progressively more advanced.

Unfortunately, of course, the struggle also progressed in advance of the majority of the working class.  Civil rights was overtaken by the sectarian mobilisation of grassroots unionism and by repression from the Unionist regime, which itself challenged the struggle for reform to become one of struggle against the state’s existence, or at least in the form of the Unionist regime that was in place.  This pushed the movement further than the forces against the state were capable of successfully going or many wanted to go.  While the struggle for civil rights moved to one against the existence of Stormont itself, this begged many questions about goals and strategy which could bring it about, and what would happen thereafter, that weren’t answered and that lay behind the seemingly endless years of ‘the Troubles’.

A third version of this left view at first glance appears different, but some have argued for it and the view above.  It argues that the Northern State could not be reformed (and we must leave aside here what the definition and scope of such reform is) but that any such radical reform would remove the foundations of the state and lead to its dissolution.

This was never the conception of the argument as understood at the time in so far as, and to the extent that, it was understood at all; because if this was the case the argument might have been to continue to fight for fundamental reform as the way of maximising working class unity while undermining the state.  Such an argument does not preclude seeking the end of then Stormont regime, as opposed to seeking the more or less immediate end of the Northern State itself.

All of these perspectives envisaged the direct intervention of the British State, even if this was not thought through, and such intervention was the goal of the civil rights movement, either because of the belief that Unionism would not reform without British pressure or that they would not reform at all.

In summary, the first left view regarded a socialist programme that included civil rights within it as the key to achievement of working class unity, primarily within the North.  The second looked to the struggle for democracy breaking the bounds of civil rights to become a struggle against the Northern State itself and partition, with the solution as a Workers’ Republic.  The primary struggle was thus against British imperialist rule with the expectation that this struggle would more or less automatically grow into a socialist one.  The third regards the struggle for radical reform as sufficient to undermine the Northern State and pose the question of a united Ireland and a Workers’ Republic.

These more strategic conceptions lie behind the differences that arose on the left about the correct intervention into the civil rights movement that arose during this time, and since, by those directly involved and which we shall look at next.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

13 thoughts on “Civil rights and socialist strategy 2 – fighting for reforms

  1. There is another alternative to the suggestions above, which is that Catholic workers in the North could have looked not only to workers in the Republic, but also in Britain to support a struggle for political and democratic rights. The obstacle to that, of course, was Irish nationalism itself, and the concessions to it by the British labour movement.

    On the one hand Irish nationalism eschewed any involvement of Britain in its affairs, including involvement by British workers. At the same time, the British labour movement appeasing Irish nationalism refused to get involved in organising alongside Irish workers in the North, organising the LP, and so on. Similar dangers are developing in proposals to create a separated Scottish LP, which is the same kind of appeasing of nationalism.

    • I think this is a rather minor cause of the problem, eg. Northern Ireland has always been treated as a place apart by British workers, for both good and bad reasons. As my series of posts record, the progenitors of the civil rights movement sought support and assistance from like-minded campaigns in Britain, particularly inside the Labour Party, but never succeeded in achieving much. A more lengthy period of campaigning without violent attack by the Northern State and loyalism might have allowed greater support to develop but once the British State became the direct oppressor the weakness of the British working class in opposing its state’s foreign oppression was exposed again. The problem of the British labour movement has not been appeasing Irish nationalism but in subordination to British nationalism. The problem of subordination to Irish nationalism in Britain arose only among those few who were in solidarity with those suffering from British oppression who eschewed socialist solidarity for political solidarity with Irish nationalist forces.

      • So do you think that the reason the Labour leaders didn’t organise a Labour Party in NI was to do with supporting British imperialism/nationalism? If so, how? I would have thought it was because they accepted the idea that labour shouldn’t organise in NI, because it was separate.

      • Yes, because it was and is separate, and because such a policy was and is in no way inconsistent with the Party’s British nationalism and support for imperialism.

      • I must be a bit hard of understanding or else missing something here.

        “Yes, because it was and is separate, and because such a policy was and is in no way inconsistent with the Party’s British nationalism and support for imperialism.”

        I don’t see how its not inconsistent. I would have thought that British nationalism and imperialism says, Northern Ireland is a little bit of Britain, and so we should replicate there what exists here. I would have though that it seeks at rapid integration, rather than leaving a door open to potential future separation. After all it organises in Scotland and Wales, which are actually separate countries.

      • No part of Ireland has ever been part of Britain, which refers to England, Scotland and Wales. This is not just a question of definition but reflects the political and social history of all these countries. The whole of Ireland was once part of the United Kingdom but when it sought a level of home rule was opposed, leading to a struggle for political independence. No such struggle ever took place within Britain.

        The British state held on to the only part of Ireland that it was interested in and was able to do so most easily through reliance on the local unionist population and a semi-autonomous regime that governed it. So even the part that could be held within the UK could not be politically integrated to be simply an extension of Britain. Even unionism in Ireland is Irish unionism, which of course these unionists were once proud to recognise.

        The North of Ireland is therefore separate and the British Labour Party has historically recognised this separation while never straying from the policy of the British State of seeking to control this part of Ireland. This of course is of a piece with the general subordination of working class interests to British imperialism, which has no interest in uniting Irish workers as the posts on the origins of the Troubles record.

      • I don’t think its that simple. A section of the British ruling class was in favour of Home Rule, actually the section that probably best represented the interests of industrial capital/imperialism, as opposed to the Tories that represented a continuation of the old landed aristocracy’s interests, and the colonialist/protectionist regime that went with it.

        Did the British, or UK if you prefer, ruling class really want to hold on to the Six Counties, or were they forced into that position by Carson, and Unionism at the expense of civil war? The idea that the British/UK ruling class had an “interest” in Northern Ireland suggests that it had some economic or strategic reason for wanting to continue its rule there. What could that be? The Six Counties have always been a drain on the coffers of the British state, and its not clear what strategic importance it has, as compared to say Gibraltar, Cyprus, Aden, Hong Kong, The Falklands etc.

        In all these places, as indeed it did in Ireland as a whole, previously, Britain stationed a heavily armed presence, reflecting this strategic importance, as well as establishing direct colonial administrations. In Northern Ireland, it did not do so, until “The Troubles” erupted, and even then, the initial reason for sending in troops was to protect Catholics from Unionist pogroms.

        It seems to me that Britain/UK has always seen Northern Ireland not as a colony, but as an annexed territory, but one that it is led to retain not out of any great desire, but out of political expediency, because the consequences of Unionist opposition to a United Ireland would have political consequences for the mainland.

        But I’m open to persuasion that I’m wrong.

      • A section of the British ruling class was prepared to accept Home Rule, although not independence, but that section did not force the issue,in fact in joined in supporting the suppression of the democratic wishes of the majority. It decided to force the same proportion of those opposed to partition into a sectarian state, as it was not prepared to leave in a united Ireland, while claiming democratic legitimacy. It was prepared to wage war in order to impose partition, and what it saw as a victory, retaining direct control of the only part of Ireland that it was interested in keeping. This was the most advanced and industrialised area that was not originally considered to be a net drain. Huge overcapacity of the industries dominating the six counties after the war meant this was very quickly not the case.

        The North had some strategic importance to Britain in the Second World War, although this has also declined. By the time ‘the Troubles’ erupted there were British troops already stationed in the North but given the relatively large Protestant paramilitary forces such as the RUC and B Specials, plus armed civilians, it was hardly necessary to have any sort of serious garrison force.

        As I argued in the series of posts, the initial reason for sending in the troops was not to protect Catholics from a Unionist pogrom, but to stabilise the political situation. This initially required such protection but this was in the context of the primacy of stabilising the Unionist regime. When this required the British to carry out its own suppression of the Catholic population this is what they did, causing far more deaths than occurred in the unionist pogrom. In fact, over the course of ‘the Troubles’ unionist paramilitaries were used as proxies to kill hundreds of Catholics.

        Britain saw the whole of Ireland as an annexed territory but treated it as a colony. As I argued in the second post on the history of civil rights and start of ‘the Troubles’, the North has features like a colony but has many features that are different and that impinge on socialist strategy. Whether Britain desires to be in the North or not, it has shown dogged persistence in holding on to it and waging a dirty war to remain. Republicans have repeatedly had the illusion that the British wanted to leave and all they needed was a push, and have repeatedly had such illusions shattered.

        This can be called political expediency but such expediency is sufficient reason in itself, reflecting a number of considerations. In the series of posts I noted that the British could have forced reform on the North at the expense of loyalist opposition but appeased it and carried out the suppression itself.

      • Again, an interesting perspective. I wouldn’t describe the British position as “wanting to leave”, more as being forced to stay as a result of political considerations, as perhaps fits with your description of the initial troop deployment as stabilising the NI regime.

        I had a comrade back in the 1970’s whose Catholic parents lived in NI, and she told of how, initially people in those Catholic areas originally greeted the troops, giving them cups of tea etc. You may be able to tell me different from your direct personal experience, but my understanding is that what changed is that at the same time that the troops were being deployed, and were initially providing protection against Protestant pogroms, the provos developed as a Catholic community defence force, and once that happened, and they tied this action to their demands for independence, thereby setting up an inevitable conflict with the troops as manifestations of British imperialism, the troops saw the provos as their main enemy.

        Because catholic communities saw the provos as a Catholic defence force they protected them as such, and they could not have survived without that community support, although it was also bolstered by their own methods of policing those communities too. So, from that point on as my comrade told us back then, the attitude of the troops changed seeing all Catholics as potential provos, and so begins the process she described of the 3 0’clock knock, of the frequent house invasions by troops and so on, turning over their belongings and so on.

        Maybe this also plays into your discussion of what might have happened had the CRM been able to develop further prior to these developments.

      • Coming from a staunchly Protestant area I had no direct experience of the Catholic population’s initial experience with the British Army. In the series of posts I have tried to set out a narrative and explanation of how relations developed that seems best to fit the facts as far as I can discern them and also explains how the situation developed. A lot more could be written about this period but I doubt the fundamental explanation of what happened would change.

        Thus, there is no doubt that the British Army was initially welcomed and that it did provide a level of protection at this time. It is also true that the IRA, in both Official and Provisional forms, reorganised and recruited at the same time and saw their role as both defence of the Catholic areas and, for the Provos especially, a chance to challenge British imperialism. In the posts I argue that this took time and that Catholic alienation did not develop immediately. (It is important to note that defence of Catholic areas was not simply carried out by the IRA but involved mass participation.) An Army carrying out policing duties will not do it very well and there will be inevitable frictions with those subject to its policing, even more the case when this is carried out by what is considered a foreign army.

        However neither the existence of the IRA nor these inevitable frictions explain the complete alienation of the Catholic population from the British Army or the conflict between them that arose. For this to happen the British Army had to become the mechanism to enforce the writ of the Stormont regime, which inevitably led to repression. At first this led to breaking from the initial voluntary arrangements for policing Catholic areas, then return of the RUC, but then intervention to guarantee the prerogatives of unionism, including Orange parades. In circumstances where the RUC remained armed and unreformed this was not sustainable.

        In order to ensure this writ the British enacted Unionist security policy, which rejected any idea that the Catholic population had the right to defend itself and considered that loyalist violence was acceptable. The British therefore through a series of initiatives, governed by the general approach that the Unionist regime was both legitimate and to be supported, carried out the repression that greatly increased support for the IRA. I mentioned the three biggest events that did this, the Falls curfew, internment and Bloody Sunday, but these were only the most prominent examples of widespread repression involving house searches, arrests, numerous riots and state killings.

        In summary, the alienation of the Catholic population from the British Army came from the British attempt to support the Stormont regime and the repression that this necessarily required. When this repression became more targeted and less ham-fisted, and the British took control of political initiatives, it was able to reduce this mass opposition. It was greatly facilitated in this by the lack of a political perspective from republicanism, which wearied the population of its resistance against the presence of the British Army. This culminated in the disaster of ‘Bloody Friday’ when the civilian casualties caused by Provisional IRA bombs in Belfast gave the British the opportunity to remove the no-go areas from which the British Army had previously been excluded.

  2. “So there was no prolonged period in which a mass civil rights movement could struggle to win over the participation of the labour movement or sections of it, which really means winning over significant numbers of Protestant workers.”

    What is your evaluation of whether had the CRM lasted longer, it would have been able to win over significant numbers of Protestant workers, given the material foundations upon which Loyalist Ascendancy, and privileges were based? Is it not possible that in reality a solution, and material basis for unity between catholic and protestant workers could only be forged as a result of the changes to those material conditions that the EU has brought, i.e. it brought an economic development that undercut the role of the ownership of capital in the North by the Protestant Ascendancy, and via EU social policy/law, made it difficult to maintain protestant privilege.

    Of course, economic development, particularly on the basis of US investment could have had a similar function, but may have taken longer to achieve. In the absence of that, it seems to me the only alternative would have been if Catholic workers in the North could have formed a stronger bond with workers in the Republic, and made continuation of the border untenable, whilst ensuring that, in the process, they offered Protestant appropriate political guarantees, such as the creation of a Federal Solution, giving the maximum of democratic rights to minorities in each area.

    • My view is that had the civil rights campaign been allowed to develop without more or less immediate violent attack by loyalism and the Northern State it would have been able to win some minority support from the Protestant population. It might then have avoided the sectarian pogrom that did ensue and the slide into ‘the Troubles’. Once these occurred the potential to win such support reduced dramatically as the question became one of communal defence by Catholic workers from violent loyalism and then from assault by the British state; one reaction to which was the project of an unwinnable war from the Provisional IRA.

      Unfortunately such an outcome was unlikely given the nature of loyalism and the state which had been born out of a sectarian pogrom and state violence.

      With or without this reaction I believe it would have been possible to create a stronger and more coherent socialist movement for the challenges that lay ahead but this movement would still have been a minority one. It might have been able to win leadership of a prolonged civil rights campaign but this judgement leads into pure conjecture. The purpose of the posts is to clarify what should be the current evaluation of ‘the Troubles’ and assist today’s orientation.

      Unity with workers in the South never cohered because the sympathy that existed found no material basis and no united organisation. This would have required political unity and that would have required political independence of the working class within both states and this never arose. Southern workers never broke politically from bourgeois parties in the Southern state so were far from uniting with their Northern comrades. The disunity caused by the creation of two states has been underestimated, which is one reason I am so opposed to Scottish separation that would have the same effect on the British working class.

      Converging economic development undoubtedly creates the material grounds for unity but this effect is more immediately on undermining the grounds for division rather than the creation of unity. In the North the State is still a dominant employer, there are few cross-border employers that could even provide the ground for common economic struggle and the political dynamics in both states remain different. As you are aware, consciousness can lag material development by some distance.

      Ironically, for socialists who rejected the sectarian notion of the Catholic population ‘out-breeding’ the Protestant one, it is my view that the growth of the Catholic population has materially undermined the most extreme exclusion of Catholics from employment etc. Society in the North could not function with the levels of direct discrimination that once existed; sectarianism is now a joint enterprise (e.g. the power sharing Executive) but unstable because of it.

      The growth of secularisation in the South has also had an effect in the North, which has undergone its own lesser secularisation. This is reflected in the legislation for women’s and gay rights and the growing acceptance and support for both. These forces are also reflected in growing numbers who fail to identify as either unionist or nationalist although again this has not led to any united positive political identification. Such an identification requires a view on the state and currently their views tend to reflect illusions in the current British settlement. Again, the persistent instability, incompetence, venality and corruption of this settlement and its sectarian foundation has not so far prevented many who consider themselves above sectarianism from continuing to support it.

      • Interesting. My point about economic development was really as a material basis for undermining Protestant Ascendancy/sectarianism rather than necessarily being a basis for North/South workers unity. The same probably applies to the undermining of clericalism in the South.

        I look forward to future posts.

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