Civil rights and socialist strategy 3 – the weakness of the left

The strategic differences that existed and discussed in the previous two posts had implications for the tactics to be pursued, although the relationship was not straight-forward.

In order to appreciate the different viewpoints, it is necessary to look at the balance of political forces in the civil rights movement and in particular the strength of the left and its potential influence and power.

We have already noted the weakness of the political influence of the wider labour movement in previous posts but it is important to recall it again as it is the primary candidate as the mechanism by which a working class and socialist strategy could have been pursued.

While the Northern Ireland Labour Party and trade union movement passed a few resolutions supportive of civil rights no trade union affiliated to NICRA and neither the industrial or political wings of the movement would mobilise their membership in support.  The reason is obvious.

The members of the trade unions were not a different species from the majority of workers who voted unionist, nationalist, or on occasion the very homeopathic socialism of the NILP; and, of course, others were apathetic and unpolitical as is the case everywhere.  The trade union movement reflected this, with a survey in 1959 revealing that Catholics were 46% of branch secretaries in the mainly unskilled ATGWU, 12% in the AEU, 9% in the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians, and 0% in the Boilermakers.  Of 53 unions surveyed and 379 branch secretaries, 80% were Protestant.

This is not to employ sectarian prejudice that assumes a person’s politics, including a trade union rep’s, can be read across from their religious background, but it is unfortunately the case that in the majority of occasions this is true, and is precisely the problem.

One might expect this not to be so much the case with trade union representatives, precisely because they have sought active participation in the union, but this doesn’t get away from the problem, because all trade union reps are acutely conscious of their role as a representative of their members and are careful not to tread too far from those whom they represent.  Where radical motions are passed at trade union branches this often reflects the influence of a few activists carrying a room consisting of a small fraction of the membership.

For most union officials the primary concern is the organisation within which they hold a position and the primary concern of the members they represent is wages and conditions.  In the North of Ireland there is strong pressure against raising political issues that would upset working relationships, and the trade union apparatus is keen that this remains the case, with policy not usually going beyond platitudes.

The problem of course is that the ‘unity’ then trumpeted is weak and subject to official public opinion relayed through the state and employer, and then imported through the trade union apparatus.  What this unity very definitely isn’t is socialist.  That it exists is not unimportant, in fact it signals a general and widespread aversion to conflict, especially sectarian conflict, but it is not the grounds on its own for creation of a radical alternative, and can only be presented as such by those with a willing blindness and by denuding this alternative of all political content.  The utterly reactionary content of unionism and its unsuitability to play any role in a trade union meant it only occasionally intervened in the scope of trade union affairs, which facilitated the weak ‘unity’ existing.

The very partial exception to lack of direct labour movement involvement in civil rights agitation was Derry, which was the second city in Northern Ireland and had a Catholic majority, and where the local Labour Party was central to the early civil rights struggle.  It was also in Derry that the civil rights movement exploded onto the stage and thousands of people were repeatedly mobilised.  If intervention by the left would make any difference, then Derry was as good a place for this to happen as anywhere.  That it didn’t should be taken into account when weighing the different arguments.

The prominent socialist and civil rights leader Eamonn McCann has written that almost all of those involved in organising the October civil rights march were “socialists of one sort or another.”  They were involved in the Derry Labour Party, but despite the blatant sectarian discrimination and poor housing the local trades council barely took up the latter, condemning the corporation but refusing in June 1968 to receive a delegation from the Derry Housing Action Committee.  It opposed a harsh fine imposed on its members as a result of a protest but would take no real action.

Civil rights did not come before the council until the month before the October 1968 civil rights march, when a delegate wanted to know what its position on it was.  It was agreed to have a special session if the council was invited to participate and to wait until its observers reported back on a march organising meeting.  It then decided that it “supported the establishment of equal civil rights in Northern Ireland for all citizens regardless of class or creed” and “participation . . . should be left to individual trade unionists”, before turning to the question of a pedestrian crossing at Westland Street.”

It played no role in a number of spontaneous strikes by Catholic workers that followed the October march, especially during 18 – 19 November, but decided to pledge support to the moderate Derry Citizens Action Committee and did not seek representation in it, although it did agree to send delegates to a NICRA meeting in Belfast.  Following the O’Neill reforms that month it went back to where it had been before, with economic and social issues to be pursued through official union and Government channels.  At its annual general meeting in April 1969, Billy Blease, who was a senior officer of the Northern Committee, told the audience to concentrate on the ‘real issues.’   As has been noted before, the Citizens Action Committed had more influence over Catholic workers than their trade unions.

McCann notes that no sizable socialist party was built from the experience of building the October march and “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight,” but he also describes those involved as “our relatively small, raggedy band of socialists’, who had “a loose style of organisation . . . coalescing on an ad hoc basis against the wishes of party leaders and without fretting about the contradictions which all knew must be lurking.”

In his book ‘War and an Irish Town’, McCann states that “the leftists involved carried out no clear political struggle within either organisation [Labour Party and Republican Club].  We could not, because what we shared was not a common programme but a general contempt for the type of politics which prevailed in the city.”

He records that an attempt had been made to “codify our ideas’ in May with a ‘perspectives document’, which stated that ‘the situation which confronts us is not promising.  The great mass of the people continue, for historical reasons, to see religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”   What was required was a socialist party but he notes that “any perspective of building a clear-minded political organisation in opposition to the dominant tendencies within the Labour or Republican movements was forgotten in the frenetic round of breaking into empty houses, organising pickets and encouraging individuals to stand up to the landlords and local bureaucrats.”

Neither the labour movement as a whole, at least in its attitude to civil rights, or the radical socialists on its periphery, were in a strong position as the campaign exploded into a struggle on the streets.

Back to part 2

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