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A second version is that since the North is irreformable the struggle for reforms should be superseded by the fight for a united Ireland and a Workers’ Republic, in which case demands for reform such as civil rights should also be superseded or at most given a subsidiary role, in perhaps detonating the struggle or being only one subsidiary part of it.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