The Irish election, a victory for the left?

Lots of superlatives have been employed to describe the results of the Irish general election, almost all reflecting the dramatic growth of the vote for Sinn Fein, which is now the largest party in terms of popular support with 24.5%.  In 2016 it had only 14 % of the vote.

This is a bit of a surprise, not least to Sinn Fein, which was unable to capitalise fully on the votes received due to not having stood enough candidates.  The party had suffered badly in the previous Presidential, local and European elections and moderated its expectations accordingly.  Two stories indicate the abrupt turnaround.  One successful candidate topped the poll in Clare with 8,987 first preference votes after having failed to become a local councillor last May when she only got 385 votes.  Another successful candidate went off on holiday during the election and only campaigned for two weeks.

Two other changes were also notable.  The first was the comprehensive rejection of the ruling Fine Gael party, which had its worst result in 60 years, and the second was the failure of the main opposition party Fianna Fail, which had its worst result since 2011, when it paid the price for its role in the crash of the Celtic Tiger.  In 2007 these two parties totalled 68% of the vote, in this election only 43%.  Lastly, also worth noting in relation to other countries, was the failure of the far right, anti-immigration candidates.

This last phenomenon reflects both well and badly on the Irish electorate.  The Irish have no post-imperial hangover like the British and their history, in so far as they know it, is one of anti-colonial resistance.  The Irish are also much more aware of their true place in the world, as a home for mainly US multinationals, for whom no prostration to their needs is too much.  So, for example, the state’s inward investment agency gave a made-up award to the senior executive in Apple for the company having hung around Ireland for 40 years making money.  It should be recalled that according to the EU, Apple owes the Irish State €13.5 billion which Apple is contesting and so is the Irish State.

In any case the existing constraints on immigration and the treatment of immigrants in direct provision centres demonstrates the harshness of existing government policy.  The 80% majority in the racist referendum in 2004 is a stain on the country yet to be removed, although the views of younger people might now be very different.

So yes, the trouncing of far-right candidates is very much to be welcomed, just as long as we appreciate the context and its limits, which is what we should do when considering the overall results.

The election result is described as reflecting a ‘mood’ for change, and the sudden rise of Sinn Fein might reflect the fact that moods come and go and are never permanent. It might reflect not only the speed of change but also the indefinite character of the message being sent, just as we suffer moods but rarely experience them as well-thought-out drivers of definite objectives.

The ‘mood for change’ has however indicated some of the change demanded, primarily to housing availability and affordability and to access to health care, as well as a solution to the general malaise around state services, or sometimes their non-existence.  But how this change will be achieved is unclear, and how Sinn Fein would achieve it is also not clear.

Clear enough however is the rejection of the main bourgeois parties and a hope that the state can play a bigger role in sorting out the shortcomings of existing economic growth.  This growth has both caused the demand for change by making failures of the economic model and the government approach obvious, and made change apparently possible through the extra resources it has provided.

The question for socialists is how wide and how deep is the demand for change, reflected in the votes for Sinn Fein and rejection of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? An exit poll recorded that 48% felt it was ‘best to have a change of government’, while nearly one third believed that ‘the country needs a radical change in direction’.  Fifty-one per cent said that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were wrong to rule out forming a government with Sinn Fein. These figures are significant without being overwhelming.

Part of the reason for the result is the fact that we have had a Fine Gael government for 9 years that only had the support of one quarter of the voters from 2016, a narrow base of support for a party that has never had real majority support.  A lot of people started off not having endorsed it and Fianna Fail’s confidence and supply arrangement did not act to add any popular support.

Now the decline of the two major parties has allowed Sinn Fein to come to the fore and we have widespread commentary that we have the beginnings at least of the formation of a new Irish politics defined by a left-right division.  So who is this left?

If we add up the parties to the left of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael we reach a total of 41.5% (SF, Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, Solidarity/People before Profit) which will only be slightly greater if we include some independents, most of whom are not left wing.

There is some coherence to this left in that Sinn Fein voters generally transferred to some of these parties and research has shown that the voters for these parties generally define themselves as left wing.  Unfortunately, all this does is transfer the limitations of this purely relative term to the people who vote for these ‘left-wing’ parties. They are, of course, to the left of the two main bourgeois parties, but how much does this tell us?

Included in this list of parties is Sinn Fein, which has grown as it has dropped its core programme of support for armed struggle to force the British out of the North of Ireland.   A list as long as your arm could be written of the U-turns it has accomplished as a result, but in the South of the country most notable is that it has gone from opposition to coalition with the two bourgeois parties to openly flouting their availability for a lash-up.  If the development of Irish politics has been defined by the crash of the Celtic Tiger, it should not be forgotten that Sinn Fein voted for the bank bail-out whereby generations of Irish workers will pay for the debts of the banks.

It includes the Green Party with 7.1% of the vote, which as a partner in Government with Fianna Fail, took political responsibility for the policies leading up to the crash and those afterwards, including the bank bail-out, suffering for years afterwards as a result.  Although apparently not long enough.

It also includes the Labour Party with 4.4%, which was the only party to vote against the bank bail-out, but then entered Government to inflict punishing austerity to pay for it.  Never one to shirk this role in alliance with Fine Gael, the party may have performed this cynical trick once too often.  The point of its existence is now regularly canvassed, since its brand is discredited and other parties appear to have taken up its claimed position on the left and apparently with greater sincerity.

The Social Democrats with 2.9% is the party that most clearly represents the alternative to Labour while Solidarity/People before Profit, with 2.6%, failed to make gains and lost one seat.  In a number of seats it relied on Sinn Fein transfers to get elected, without it seems showing much appreciation.  The left changed names, split again and ‘allied’ again for the elections and hailed the mood for change but no more defined it than before.  That it failed to profit from this mood is a real failure.

For groups claiming to be Marxist it is its own judgement that their intervention always fails to call into question the role of elections or advance the organisation and political consciousness of the Irish working class.  The limits of this consciousness have instead imposed itself on this left, by which we mean reliance on the state and failure to make reorganisation of the labour movement its aim.

Behind this motley history lies a coherence that is not apparent at first glance.  Greater state intervention is common to all these parties with a preference for a left government to carry it out, however variously understood.  Now Sinn Fein has said it wants to lead negotiations of these parties to create such a government.

The numbers do not add up but this is not initially the point.  The point would be some agreement that these components should come together with their own proposal for government.  Whether it succeeds is not within its control, but it sends a message.  What happens when it does not succeed is something else again.  It would at least form a benchmark against which voters in future elections might seek reference and therefore accord relevance.

Of course, some on the left ‘left’ might denounce Sinn Fein sincerity, pointing to its implementation of austerity while in office in the North, or its use of such an initiative purely for leverage with Fianna Fail in coalition negotiations, but this would be seeking to avoid the problem.  If such denunciations were effective on their own Sinn Fein would not be where it is today.  An alternative would be to challenge the party to make real on commitment to a left programme and a left government; because of the left’s own Keynesian-type policies there are no qualitative differences with its own programme.

If this is not the approach then the claims to fight for a left Government by Solidarity/People before Profit is a fraud, for what they can only mean in such a case is that their policy is for themselves alone in Government.  Given the propensity to split this looks even further away than their already 2.6% vote would lead one to believe.  One problem is that these organisations don’t trust each other or themselves, the latter leading to splits, and if this is the case, why should the working class?

Only a united, democratic left, whatever its political shortcomings, could begin to repair this situation.

Of course, this is not a very revolutionary perspective, but there are no smart political policies or demands that will make for one.  It reflects where the working class is at, the degree to which the election results have shown the scope and extent of radicalisation.  We either meet it, and seek to develop it, or we present it with ultimatums to be more revolutionary than it is.

 

 

Sinn Fein in Government?

This week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll reported that Sinn Fein is potentially headed to be the biggest party in this weekend’s general election,  While it’s on 25% support, the governing party Fine Gale is on 20% and the opposition Fianna Fail on 23%.  Sinn Fein has almost reached these levels of support before in the Irish State but never in first place.

The Irish Times sketch writer, Miriam Lord, has described all three parties as now in various degrees of panic.  Fine Gael, because its loss of support reflects the depths of opposition to its years in office and it may be out of it soon; Fianna Fail, because of its years of keeping Fine Gael in office in an agreement between the two parties, and Sinn Fein, because it has come as a surprise to it as much as many others after very bad Presidential, local and European elections.

The Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has been described as looking like an OTR (as in an ‘on the run’- a member of the IRA who doesn’t have immunity from prosecution) on the grounds that now that they have reached this great height they don’t want to screw it up by having to answer any difficult questions.  McDonald has been acclaimed for good media performances and tapping into a widespread mood for change, while also being applauded for not being too specific about how she is going to solve the health and housing crises giving rise to this demand for change.

It would not be wrong to note that Sinn Fein’s opposition to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail does not exactly transmit into opposition to either of them being in office, only that they should be open to Sinn Fein joining them.  That of course would require a joint programme for Government, which by definition requires no significant differences between them in any potential coalition programme.  But if Sinn Fein can go into coalition with one of the most reactionary parties in Europe, I refer to the Democratic Unionist Party for those unfamiliar with Irish politics, coalition with either of these parties should not be a problem.

Fine Gael originates from part of the Irish Republican movement that fought the British in 1916 and in the War of Independence.  Leading figures in these struggles were also leading figures in the pro-Treaty side in the following civil war, including the prime military leader of the War of Independence, Michael Collins, and W T Cosgrave, the Irish State’s first Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail’s leaders also fought in 1916, the War of Independence and Civil War, just on the anti-Treaty side in the last conflict.  While the Pro-Treaty ancestor of Fine Gael supported the new Irish State from the beginning, because of the argument that it would provide ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’, the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail claim it is they who delivered it, (although it was a Fine Gael led government that declared the Irish State a Republic and Fianna Fail can’t explain what proved to be wrong with the pro-Treaty argument).

Sinn Fein holds itself to be the party both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail split from, except it itself is a split from the Official Republican Movement in 1970, its claim now resting on the fact that the Official Republicans abandoned the name and moved away from the politics of traditional Irish nationalism.  Like pro-Treaty republicans who rejected the British solution of Home rule; and like Fianna Fail, who rejected the new British solution of the Free State; Sinn Fein rejected both, but now accepts the latest British solution to ‘the Irish Question’, which on this side of the sea is more accurately described as ‘the British Question’.

All three parties now agree that the Free State/26 County State/Irish State is legitimate and now accept partition, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  They have their differing constituencies of support – Sinn Fein stronger among less well-off sections of the working class in urban areas; Fianna Fail among farmers, but also among other social layers; and Fine Gael among the better off middle class, but they all hail from the same tradition of militant Irish nationalism that isn’t militant anymore.  In the end all three provide proof of the old adage that fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

For many decades now there has been no essential, and little inessential, difference between Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), and many have ridiculed the competition between them.  It’s rather the political equivalent of club rivalry in the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), in which the cousins in one club beat the shit out of the cousins from a rival parish’s club.  If you’re in the club you don’t need explanation for the rivalry, but any explanation you might get for it will make not much sense.

Now we have a third force, which promises real change, and because of its youth, is not yet fully conscious of its position in the world and has yet to form a rounded, fully-developed and more or less permanent personality of gobshite politics. I have no doubt many Sinners believe they are opposed to austerity in the South and have not implemented it in the North, or will excuse themselves for it.  But reality says different.

Sinn Fein policies involve broadly social democratic promises, including significantly higher state spending, some lower taxes and increased taxation of businesses and higher incomes.  It has made hay with the now dropped plan of Fine Gael to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, the paramilitary police force the British used to police the whole of Ireland before partition.  There is no good reason why this particular revisionist step should suddenly detonate a reaction, but it is welcome nonetheless, even if it exposes once again the limited nature of popular nationalism.

Sinn Fein are opposed and rather hysterically denounced by both FF and FG, but both of these have recognised the electoral need to support increased state spending and reduced emphasis on tax cuts.

They and Sinn Fein also do so because, as the economic boom in Ireland has continued, the inherent imbalances in capitalist growth require a State to intervene to ensure these do not become an obstacle to further profitable expansion.  Poor infrastructure in health, housing, childcare and transport threatens to increase the cost of labour power (the value of labour power in Marxist parlance) and so provide both practical and cost barriers to capital accumulation and growth.

The two most pressing are housing and health.  The problem is that more money is not the (only) problem for both and there is no easy solution for any of the parties within the limits of their political ideologies and projects.  An unreconstructed health service could gobble up much more money without comparable improvement in the population’s health, although the worst experiences might be avoided. Pumping more money into housing could easily make it more expensive to buy and rents no more affordable.  The power of the middle class interests in both, and particularly of landowners and property developers in political networks, makes any radical solution (that doesn’t automatically involve capitalist expropriation) the last thing the major political parties will want to do.  And this will be true of Sinn Fein, as potentially a new addition.

However, in itself, the Sinn Fein economic programme offers no insuperable barrier to the formation of a coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.  The difference is mainly one of scale and the compromises involved in coalitions can cover that in every meaning of the word.  The economic boom provides as benevolent an environment as Sinn Fein is likely to get, even taking account of a potential hit from Brexit.

The potential for another recession, through another property crash (a couple of property investment funds have recently refused to allow investors to cash-out) might however reveal the underlying debt position of the state.  The bank bail-out that caused the bankruptcy of the Irish state has left an overhang of debt that is currently relatively easily affordable because of low interest rates, with yields on 10 year Irish bonds in negative territory.  But this cannot last and a recession could easily raise them.

But that is more than a problem for Sinn Fein, although it should not be forgotten that the party supported the bank bail out that made the debts of the banks the debts of the people.  Sinn Fein has thus shown that it is no more a real alternative to Fianna Fail than Fianna Fail is to Fine Gael.  It simply has yet to be demonstrated, which of course is not something inconsequential in itself.

Unlike the North, the Irish State is a sovereign state and acutely aware that the Provisionals were until relatively recently a subversive threat to the stability, if not the existence, of the state.  The Provisionals are no longer a real or a proclaimed threat but they are an armed force outside of state control, even if much diminished, and this is unacceptable.  Sinn Fein will still have much to prove and the political establishment in Dublin may make arrangements to ensure exclusion of Sinn Fein from office this time.  It may be possible, for example that Fianna Fail gains sufficiently in seats from the unpopularity of the Government that it is able to form a coalition, which some pundits predict will be the case.

The reaction of the left to Sinn Fein growth is to ask that it not enter coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.   But this left is in competition with Sinn Fein for the same constituency and has regularly denounced it as soft on both establishment parties and ever-ready to do a deal with either of them.  The alternative, which I noted in a series of posts on the strategy that the left has pursued, was to be more open to an alliance with Sinn Fein and fight to unite with it in a common alliance.  Of course, this would require some common programme, but since the left’s electoral policies are just souped-up social democracy, this too would simply be a matter of compromise without breaking any principle.  The policies of the left do not involve the overthrow of capitalism, not to mention any mechanisms for the development of socialism.

In the first leaders debate on television, the first question asked was all about why people should vote for a party if it couldn’t form part of a government.  And this was a reasonable question, because this is what elections are for.  And it was a question that rendered People before Profit/Solidarity irrelevant and Richard Boyd Barrett with nothing to say.  Listening to him there was no sense in which he spoke on behalf of a movement outside the establishment bourgeois democratic process that in itself was the alternative to the problems he and the others were asked about.

That is because the left is currently now almost wholly an electoral force, something that limits its potential and limits its development.  A long time ago it ceased to fight for socialist politics in these elections and retreated to radical social democracy.  It clearly has no idea what sort of platform a Marxist organisation should stand upon in an electoral contest, or rather It thinks it already does.  However, its Keynesian policies and state-centred solutions render the working class absent as the agent of change, making it instead the supplicant of the state it must ultimately remove and replace.

The left has collapsed into social democratic politics in order to be consonant with the existing political consciousness of the Irish working class and to demonstrate its practical relevance to it by being elected.  But this ultimately means getting into office, a step it is both unprepared to take and to which it puts up unjustified obstacles, its opposition to Sinn Fein being one of them.

While it is possible to condemn Sinn Fein for its opportunism and its betrayal of working class interests, this has to be demonstrated.  Having decided to adopt electoralism as a strategy the left should either abandon the strategy and totally re-evaluate its understanding of Marxism, or it should follow through on its electoralism and take its social democratic programme to its logical conclusion.  If history is anything to go by, the latter is the much more likely road that will be taken.

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 12 – The Battle of the Bogside

 

Given the trouble that had erupted earlier in January and April the Apprentice Boys annual parade on 12 August in Derry, along the walls that look down on the City’s Catholics in the Bogside, was bound to lead to violent clashes. John Hume had visited London in July to warn of the ‘powder keg’ that had developed while the Irish Government’s Minister for External Affairs had used the same words.  The Government in London was concerned, and there were many meetings, letters and calls attempting to work out a position in advance of the parade.  Representatives of the Bogside met those from the Apprentice Boys on 8th in order to discuss arrangements for the day but the loyal order representatives said that it couldn’t be stopped, although they did make some minor changes to the route of the parade.

A Defence Committee had been created and barricades erected.  Stewards attempted to prevent attacks on the 15,000 strong march, but Catholic youth were in no mood to accept any symbolic reminder of their second-class status, and they had become increasingly incapable of control by organised political forces.

Attempts to prevent attacks by these youth failed and they began throwing stones at the Apprentice Boys marchers.  The RUC then attacked the Catholic crowds who had gathered at the entrance to the Bogside and the siege of the area – the ‘battle of the Bogside’ – had begun.  Armoured cars, and CS gas in vast quantities were employed in repeated attacks on the area by the RUC and loyalists over three days, while the Catholic defenders employed petrol bombs that held their attackers at bay

Voluntary medical support treated 373 people for the effects of the gas which seeped into every pore in the area, severely affecting everyone but especially the old.  Live rounds were fired by some RUC while loyalists expressed their frustrations by trying to burn out the foreign press based at the City Hotel.

The whole population of the Bogside took part in the defence with Bernadette Devlin, the recently elected Westminster MP, taking a prominent role.  She and McCann called on Westminster to act, and Devlin then also called Dublin to ask for the intervention of the Irish Army, although it was neither equipped to do so, nor did its political masters have any intention of getting embroiled.  Irish troops were moved to the border and a militant-sounding speech was made by the Taoiseach Jack Lynch, stating that “the Irish Government can no longer stand by”, but while this encouraged the Bogside defenders, it also seemed to encourage off-duty B Specials to decide to march on the Bogside.

The Republican Sean Keenan, McCann and Devlin all appealed on the first night to NICRA and other defence committees to stage distractions to limit the capacity of the attacking police and loyalist forces, and over the following days demonstrations were held in Belfast, Dungiven, Strabane, Toomebridge, Omagh, Lurgan, Armagh, Newry and Enniskillen.

The greatest fear was that the B Specials, armed, undisciplined and bigoted, would be let loose on the Bogside causing a massacre.  The Unionist Prime Minister held a meeting on the second day of the battle with Ian Paisley, who demanded that the B-Specials be mobilised and that a ‘people’s militia’ be recruited to restore order, resulting in Chichester-Clarke putting his name to a newspaper advertisement encouraging people to join.

The Defence Committee had already decided not to use guns nor permit their use – there were very few and half of these were apparently useless.  The IRA was in no position to defend the Bogside if the police or loyalists decided to use arms, and if the worst came to the worst it was hoped the Irish Army would intervene, something that couldn’t be contemplated in Belfast.

Jack Lynch’s speech claiming that the Irish Government ‘could not stand by’ raised unionist fears, but despite some use of guns by the RUC, the Irish Government at this point only promised field hospitals across the border to take any casualties.  In the event, the situation in Derry developed very differently from that in Belfast, where in the space of two days seven people were to be shot dead.

By 14 August the RUC were exhausted, were complaining of a shortage of men and were apparently preparing to take a more defensive posture.  On the afternoon of that day Stormont broadcast a call for all B-Specials to mobilise but at 4:35 pm made the formal request for British troops to intervene after the British decided it for them.  The RUC and B-Specials withdrew and the British Army took over at 5.15.

For the Bogside defenders it appeared that they had won.  The attacks had been repulsed and the Specials had not been allowed to initiate a massacre.  The General Officer Commanding the British Army, Lieutenant-General Ian Freeland, let it be known that he would fire to defend the Victoria Barracks and city centre but that he and the Government would not enter the Bogside.

Bernadette Devlin warned of the need to continue the fight, because she had been informed by Chichester-Clarke that Stormont was still in control and the British Army was there to support the RUC and B-Specials.  However, the view that victory had been achieved appeared to prevail.  A message was given to the Colonel of the Army regiment in place by two Bogside representatives that their demands included the abolition of Stormont, the disbandment of the B-Specials and the granting of a legal amnesty. ‘We remain at war with Stormont until these demands are met.’

These were demands that the Unionist regime could obviously not meet, but they weren’t directed to that regime because as far as the Bogside was concerned, that regime had just been defeated.  There was as yet however no demands for the British Army to get out.  British rule was not yet the issue and the key objective of favourable British intervention was continued, albeit with more radical demands placed upon it.  The civil rights movement had wanted Westminster intervention, despite denials by the left that this was the objective, and the Irish Government also wanted the British to take control over events.  Now this was happening.

In itself, the battle of the Bogside did not make ‘the Troubles’ inevitable, in that the British still had room to manoeuvre.  However, since their intervention was designed to stabilise the existing situation and protect the fundamentals of the prevailing political arrangements, this room was limited.  The British stood in the way of the potential for a much greater eruption of violence by the Unionist regime but this eventually led only to their inflicting the violence themselves.  The limits of a British intervention that would deliver the demands of the civil rights movement and limit the radicalisation of the Catholic population would be set by the mobilising power of the most rabid loyalist bigots who had now begun to attack Catholics in Belfast.  These attacks in turn exposed the complicity of the state forces and the leadership of the Unionist regime.

This formed the political situation that the civil rights leaders needed to confront.  Michael Farrell has written that in the Battle of the Bogside ‘the Tricolour and James Connolly’s Citizen Army flag – the Starry Plough – flew, while the moderate leadership of the Citizen’s Action Committee, like Hume and Cooper, were ‘swept aside’.  McCann records that the Committee dominated by ‘moderates’ had ‘died’ after the riots in Derry in April and lacked authority, certainly with the youth, and that republicans had then taken the initiative by setting up a defence committee.

However he also noted that a speech by Bernadette Devlin opposing the newly arrived British Army and denouncing imperialism ‘did not go down very well’, while the issue of the ‘Barricade Bulletin’ saying it was a defeat for the Unionist Government ‘but not yet a victory for us’,  ‘didn’t have much effect’ – ‘people were not in the mood for political analysis.’

He noted that the militancy exhibited in the battle did not lead to any qualitative development in political consciousness, despite the agitation for weeks by left activists with ‘well attended and enthusiastic’ public meetings, which applauded calls to ‘smash the rotten capitalist system’.  ‘What the people were applauding was not so much what we said but the way we said it.  We were great ones for violence of the tongue.’  McCann noted that ‘we never got down to defining with any precision what British imperialism was.’

The problem however was not simply, or mainly, lack of precision, such precision would not have significantly changed the mass consciousness of the Derry Catholic population, however much it might have assisted the left in its further development.  It would be a mistake therefore to believe now that more clarity on this, however beneficial it would have been, would have made the difference.

What the events had demonstrated was that militancy in itself did not develop socialist consciousness, although it is impossible without it, and that the Catholic population in Derry in 1969 was occupied with the immediate need for security and longer term guarantee of it, along with satisfaction of the other original demands of the civil rights campaign.

How a socialist programme and political intervention could provide these was necessary, but the tide that McCann and the left were trying to turn back was the product of a political identity and consciousness for whom the nature of imperialism was an abstract question and immaterial outside these concerns.  The lack of class consciousness reflected a lack of class unity while the strength of nationalist and sectarian consciousness reflected the cohesion of community defined in these terms, as well as the dominating political forces within and without that were organised on these lines.

The Bogside received many political visitors following the battle, including Lord Hailsham from London and ‘a procession’ of political notables from Dublin, with the most important being James Callaghan from the Labour Government.  A delegation to him repeated the first demands of the Bogside to the British Army but McCann notes that the ‘demands’ were no longer taken very seriously, and Callaghan had both impressed the Defence Committee and the people, who considered the arrival of the British as symbolising victory over the RUC

In effect, the maintenance of the barricades was no longer about defence but about these demands, but maintenance of the barricades could not deliver them.  And there were other things that barricades could not deliver.

The Yong Socialists in Derry called on the Defence Association to control rents, ensure that overtime and minimum wage rates were paid, equal pay for women was implemented and free bus travel implemented for the old, students and unemployed.  But the inability, even discounting any unwillingness, of any defence committee to deliver on such demands would have been immediately obvious to any socialist force the least acquainted with Marxism.  For Marxists it is axiomatic that the terms and conditions of distribution are a function of the ownership of the means of production, and what means of production did the Derry Defence Committee own? What state functions did it perform that would have allowed it to make and implement such decisions?

The Defence Committee wanted to bring down the barricades, the people could no longer see much purpose to them and the left were swimming against the tide.   It was not the first time that they had gone up or that they were to come down.  In the weeks leading up to this McCann writes that ‘depression was slowly setting in . . . nothing ever happened’, and the barricades eventually came down in mid-September when a British Army landrover went through with the local Bishop perched in the passenger seat.  The latest period of ‘Free Derry’ was over.

The day after the last barricade came down rioting erupted between Catholic and Protestant youths who clashed with the British army.  When the dust cleared a middle-aged Protestant man, William King, was found dead, having suffered a heart attack while being beaten.  Protestant anger grew as Catholic anger had grown following the earlier death of Samuel Devenney.

The British army then introduced a ‘peace-ring’ that encircled the Bogside and Creggan areas with barriers and checkpoints, introducing a ‘near-curfew’ from 8pm to 6am.  Army control replaced any notion of army protection.  The Catholic population began to take on a relationship with the British army more akin to a native population and a foreign armed force, one that would police them in the way colonial forces always do.  And they were going to have to stay until local policing became acceptable, which was the problem before they had arrived.

Back to part 11

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 11 – loyalists attack the State

Belfast. Shankill Road. Belfast Telegraph

On 26 July 1969 a Peoples Democracy march for civil rights in Fermanagh was banned and 37 of its supporters arrested.  Just over a week later on 2 August an Orange march passed the Catholic Unity Flats at the bottom of the Shankill Road, where trouble had broken out a couple of weeks before.

False rumours had emerged that Catholic residents of the flats had abused children during the junior Orange parade that had just taken place before the adult march.  A loyalist mob attacked the flats – “throwing missiles” and “shouting sectarian abuse” – leading to hand-to-hand fighting with the residents while an RUC loudhailer proved unsuccessful in persuading the mob that the rumours were untrue.  John McKeague, led the attack by the Shankill Defence Association (SDA), later admitting to the Scarman Tribunal that he had ordered it, while also being suspected as the originator of the rumours.

Numerous attacks on Catholics took place elsewhere at this time at the top of the Shankill Road, while the RUC stood by or advised the victims to do as they had been told by their loyalist assailants.  The intimidation at this point was mainly against Catholic residents who were seen as encroaching too far into the Shankill area, while later attacks went beyond this to Catholics to the west of the Shankill, in the Falls, and to the east in Ardoyne and Crumlin Road, populated mainly but not exclusively by Catholics.  In today’s language it might be described as ethnic cleansing, although without the mass murder and without there being any kind of ethnic difference.

At Unity Flats, fighting erupted between the residents and RUC who were accompanied by a number of B Specials.  One resident, Patrick Corrie, was knocked unconscious after a number of blows to the head.  He was taken to the RUC station in Tennent Street in the Shankill and held there for an hour before being sent for medical treatment.  He remained unconscious there for several weeks before he died, the post-mortem revealing several skull fractures causing brain damage.

The Scarman Tribunal found that he had died from injuries caused by blows to the head from the police.  Scarman criticised the RUC and absolved the residents, “whose only crime [was] throwing of stones at their attackers.”  Even an Orange Order investigation later stated that there was no evidence of an attack on the junior Orange parade.

The RUC, who found themselves in the way of a potential full-scale attack on the Flats by loyalists, brought in armoured vehicles, being informed that the loyalists were going to acquire weapons.  Failure to take Unity Flats then led the loyalists to turn on the RUC,  throwing gelignite blast bombs at police vehicles while many residents evacuated the complex.    The RUC in turn defended themselves, although never in this period using CS gas against loyalist rioters, in stark contrast to its massive use in Derry only a couple of weeks later.

McKeague led a delegation to RUC Headquarters demanding the removal of the RUC from the Shankill, while Paisley declared his full support for the police and for deployment of the B Specials.  As a recent book on the start of ‘the Troubles’ notes, an extraordinary situation had developed where five separate organisations were patrolling the Shankill: B Specials, Shankill Defence Association, Orange Order (wearing their collarettes) Royal Black Preceptory and RUC (until McKeague demanded their removal). (‘Burn Out’, Michael McCann)

As the author of this book also notes – “following two days of loyalist violence and destruction, large swathes of the Shankill lay in ruins, with almost every shop attacked and many looted . . . . Unsurprisingly, McKeague blamed the looting on nationalists.”  By 3 August the ‘Shankill looked  . . . as though it had been blitzed.  Hundreds of windows in shops and private houses were smashed and the contents of shop windows looted.”

McKeague succeeded by early August in expelling the RUC from the Shankill, although some members of the SDA were policemen and many were B Specials.  Just as loyalists were first to throw bombs at the RUC, so were they the first in Belfast to create a ‘no-go’ area.  McKeague then attempted to negotiate the hand-over of particular flats that directly faced onto the Shankill to what he considered to be loyal Protestants, to be told by a residents’ representative that the SDA would get ‘not one stone in Unity Walk Flats.’

The ties of street vigilantes to the highest political levels of the Unionist regime were illustrated by the exposure that just before this failed attempt by McKeague he had met the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Chichester-Clarke, claiming that he had fully informed him of what he was going to do and claiming also that he had the Prime Minister’s blessing.  The meeting also took place just before Chichester-Clarke broadcast a condemnation of sectarian attacks and expressed hope that the perpetrators would be subject to the law.

The RUC continued to find themselves fighting loyalists intent on entering Catholic areas while on many other occasions simply standing back.  McKeague toured the Shankill whipping up sectarianism and organising the SDA, telling loyalists at one meeting “that ‘papishers’ should be given a one-way ticket to the Republic.”  These rabble-rousing speeches were ignored by the RUC, who also ignored other attacks on isolated Catholic residents, on one occasion the unfortunate victim being told by the RUC that they could not help because “they had no time.”

Many Protestants were sympathetic to their Catholic neighbours’ plight and opposed the intimidation but their attempts to get help from the RUC were also ignored.  As one Protestant said “the gangs told me that I would be burned out if I tried to help the Catholics.”  There was simply no anti-sectarian organisation in these areas that could have organised Protestants to defend their Catholic neighbours.

NICRA organised a meeting in the Catholic Andersonstown area and condemned the RUC for failing to protect Catholic residents, noting that those who had been arrested were looters of shops on the Shankill but not those intimidating Catholics.  One RUC officer claimed that from 1 July to 12 August (when all this was going on) “he had no experience in the district of “actual and real intimidation”, although he was “aware of rumours going around.”

During this time Billy McMillan, the leader of the IRA in the city, admitted that the organisation had come under pressure to act but that their “meagre armaments” were “hopelessly inadequate” and the “use of firearms by us would only serve to justify the use of greater force against the people by the forces of the Establishment and increase the danger of sectarian pogroms.”

The left was just developing its organisation, with Peoples Democracy only launching its own newspaper earlier in the year.  As Michael Farrell put it in a discussion in April published in New Left Review – it was necessary to now “develop concrete agitation work over housing and jobs to show the class interests of both Catholic and Protestant.”  But as Bernadette Devlin also stated in the same discussion – “we are totally unorganised”; while Eamonn McCann stated that “we have failed to give a socialist perspective because we have failed to create any socialist organisation”. Even Farrell noted that at this time “we cannot form any high level organisation, as we do not yet have the theoretical basis for any clearly determined policies, in fact we have not even discussed some elementary problems.”

Events were thus running far ahead of any possible perspective that the left could embark upon that could allow it to play a direct role in shifting the direction of events.  Loyalism was presenting any problem with housing as one of Catholic encroachment into Protestant areas, as symbolic and real evidence of the threat posed to their position by Catholic advance, even if such advance was only intended to achieve equality.

So it was against this background that the annual Apprentice Boys parade was to take place in Derry on 12 August.  Trouble was all but inevitable and there were calls that the loyalist march in the mainly Catholic city should be banned.  To do so however would fatally weaken the supposedly moderate Chichester-Clarke leadership.

The march would go ahead and trigger a series of events that would lead in a couple of days to the British Army on the streets.  The London Government had already flown 500 British troops to the North in April after the first explosion carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force; had moved troops to the naval base in Derry in July, and had moved a detachment of troops to RUC headquarters in August.  The British troops that were to appear on the streets were already in Northern Ireland and British Military intelligence already knew what was going on, as did the British Government.  Whatever was going on during the months before August was not enough to make them feel compelled to intervene.  But this was about to change.

Back to part 10

Forward to part 12

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 10 – the rise of sectarianism

The political confrontation resulting from the clash of the civil rights movement with a Unionist regime unwilling to offer the necessary reforms led to growing tension and violence intensified by the mobilisation of extreme loyalism.

The riots in Derry in April 1969, which were prevented from developing into greater conflict by withdrawal of the RUC, were preceded by an explosion at an electricity station just south of Belfast, followed by another at the Silent Valley reservoir in County Down, and another at an electricity facility in Portadown.  These were blamed on the IRA and provided the opportunity for hard-line unionists to demand greater repression, while denouncing the civil rights movement as a vehicle for armed republicanism.

Ian Paisley’s campaign against O’Neill continued, with the latter described as “a traitor, a tyrant, and a viper,’ whilst his newspaper, the ‘Protestant Telegraph’, declared that “this latest act of IRA terrorism is an ominous indication of what lies ahead for Ulster: IRA barbarism, especially, sabotage and ambush.  Loyalists must now appreciate the struggle that lies ahead and the supreme sacrifice that will have to be made in order that Ulster will remain Protestant.”  In fact, it was associates of Paisley who carried out the bombings, for which he is now alleged to have provided the finance.The loyalist bombs were intended to raise the spectre of an IRA campaign, so justifying rejection of demands for further reform and supporting the removal of the ‘traitor’ O’Neill.

Rioting followed NICRA and PD protests in Belfast; and the IRA petrol-bombed a number of post offices on the same day that the more effective loyalist bombings of the water and electricity facilities were carried out.  The IRA had carried out a number of actions in the previous couple of years but these rather revealed its weakness which had been reflected in poor electoral results, for example coming in fourth out of four candidates in the October 1964 Westminster election.  In May 1967 and January 1968, it had bombed British army recruitment offices in Belfast and Lisburn and in July 1968 had attacked an RUC operation in West Belfast with a hand grenade.

IRA leader Cathal Goulding revealed the policy of republicans at this time and both their new thinking and the limits to it.  In February 1969 he stated that “if the civil rights movement fails there will be no answer other than the answer we have always preached.  Everyone will realise it and all constitutional methods will go overboard.”  British Intelligence estimated that the IRA had 500 members in the North and while morale was considered good it was short of guns, ammunition and money.  In any case at this point such activity was subordinated to civil rights agitation over which it had influence but not control.

Its actions in targeting post offices was designed to draw off RUC who would otherwise be available to join attacks on the Bogside.  This was justified as a defensive operation that protected Catholics and was to be the approach taken later in the year when attacks on the Bogside took place again in August, one that dramatically demonstrated the extremely limited capacity of the IRA to play this role.  The rationale for the IRA carrying out more minor attacks than loyalists in such circumstances can therefore be questioned.

In the face of continuing protests and the rioting in Belfast, Terence O’Neill conceded the principle of ‘One Man, One Vote’ on 22 April.  The next day the prominent Unionist Chichester-Clarke, who was O’Neill’s cousin, resigned.  The Unionist Parliamentary Party accepted the reform by 28 votes to 22 but the other prominent Unionist leader, Brain Faulkner, voted against.

That night two more explosions occurred at water facilities, leaving the whole of Belfast badly short of water, weakening further the position of O’Neill inside the Party.  Rather than face impending defeat, and in order to secure the leadership for Chichester-Clarke rather than the more hard-line Brian Faulkner, O’Neill resigned, to be replaced by his cousin by a majority of just one vote.

The ingrained sectarianism that existed even within ‘reforming’ unionism was exposed in an interview with the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper in May when O’Neill, after his resignation, said that:

“It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church”

Chichester-Clarke attempted to re-unite the Unionist Party by bringing Faulkner back into the cabinet while announcing a temporary amnesty for offences connected with political protest.  This spared not only civil rights demonstrators but also loyalists like Paisley, who got out of jail, and B Special Constabulary who otherwise might have been expected to qualify for prosecution by the RUC. After Chichester-Clarke and Faulkner met Harold Wilson and James Callaghan from the Labour Government at Westminster it was announced that the next local elections would be held under ‘One Man, One Vote’.

NICRA had called a temporary halt to demonstrations but demanded a timetable for reforms that would include abandoning the proposed Public Order Bill designed to repress demonstrations.  At the end of June demonstrations began again.

The strains placed on the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society meant that the political conflict around civil rights had not been solved, or rather, the acceptance of civil rights by the Unionist leadership did not signal an agreed solution.  Half the Unionist Party had opposed equal voting rights and armed loyalists had attempted to ratchet up the tension and provoke a more repressive response.

In April a meeting was held of community leaders in the Shankill Road in Belfast, ostensibly to address poor housing conditions in the area.  These were undoubtedly awful.  In the house that I lived in at that time the outside toilet had only recently been ‘joined’ to the rest of the house, so that snails had to be avoided on the cold tiles while running from the bath to the fire in order to dry off.  In work done to put in an electric fire in the living room, what seemed like hundreds of cockroaches ran out when the old wooden hearth was lifted up.  Within the year the ceiling in the living room had fallen down unannounced on my mother and myself.

But this accommodation seemed luxurious in comparison to my grandparents house further down the Shankill Road, which still had an outside toilet, complete with newspaper, and two bedrooms upstairs whose floors were so uneven that it was impossible to lie down on the bed without quickly feeling the blood draining either to one’s head or feet. The conditions of many on the Shankill were often no better than conditions on the Catholic Falls and some Protestants thought they were worse, since Divis Flats at the bottom of the Falls had just been built.

The difference of course was that Protestants by and large supported the regime that kept them in these conditions while Catholics opposed it.  They didn’t see such conditions as a reason to oppose the Unionists, unless like my parents they continued to vote for the Northern Ireland Labour Party, but rather were convinced that the Catholics were no worse off than they were and so had no justification for their opposition.  The hostility to Catholic claims was grounded on the sectarian identity that defined most Shankill Protestants and their politics.

The meeting of Shankill community figures included Mina Browne, who had made a name for herself by supporting the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, and had been a part-time cleaner in Belfast Corporation.  In that capacity she had organised protests against the Corporation’s decision to allow Catholics to join the list of school cleaners.  She had also sent an anonymous threatening telegram to a Unionist MP on behalf of the UVF, although the telegraph clerk had rather exposed her by putting her address on the telegram!  She had also denounced Paisley as a ‘big wind bag’, proving once again that there was always someone more extreme than the extremists within loyalism.

The meeting was highjacked from its purported purpose and a Shankill Defence Association (SDA) created.  This quickly set up groups of vigilantes with a membership of 2,000 and acquired arms and explosives.  In the later British Government sponsored Scarman Tribunal, which looked into the background to the growing violence, a senior RUC officer was to describe the SDA as a small group of men, even though it was to play a major role in the mass intimidation of Catholic residents in the general Shankill area and the streets adjacent to it.

Slogans began appearing on walls – ‘Fenians get out or we’ll burn you out’ –  and direct intimidation escalated.  Three families fled their homes in Dover street while a few days later another loyalist mob threatened Catholics in Manor Street.   Others received bullets in envelopes marked ‘UVF’, or with a warning that the next bullet they got ‘will be through your head.’.  One Catholic owner of a café on the Crumlin Road received a message from the UVF stating that ‘if she did not shut her café she would be burned out.’

Loyalist intimidation also grew outside Belfast, with three sticks of gelignite planted at a Catholic church in Saintfield, south of Belfast, and a petition organised in the mainly Protestant workforce at the ICI plant in Carrickfergus, north of Belfast, stating that ‘too many Catholics were getting in.’  Meanwhile, the Unionist regime used emergency powers to deploy the British army to guard key installations from the IRA and called up the armed police reserve – the B Specials – many of whose members were responsible for the growing loyalist violence.

The leader of the SDA was John McKeague and it is instructive of so much of what happened in ‘the Troubles’, at this time and afterwards, to read his Wikipedia page. An acolyte of Paisley he was, like many such people, later disowned by him, playing the role of Paisley himself by occupying Belfast City Centre to protest against a James Connolly commemoration demonstration on 15 June.

In the lead up to the height of the Unionist marching season in July intimidation increased on the street and in workplaces.  The Fire Brigade recorded an increase in petrol-bomb attacks on Catholic properties in the Shankill, while McKeague organised swaps of homes between Protestants in Catholic Ardoyne and Catholics in the Shankill/Woodvale. On one occasion forty RUC looked on as a loyalist mob burned down a Catholic house.  On 5 July Paisley threatened at a rally of 2,000 loyalists in Bessbrook that he would march on the Catholic town of Newry.  Later, in August, he declared that his supporters were “armed and premeditated” while threatening that events would be worse than previous troubles in 1912, the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s.

In Belfast the increased tension and intimidation began to centre on the Unity Flats complex at the bottom of the Shankill Road, whose Catholic residents were woken early on 12th by loyalist bandsmen.  The loyalist parade was accompanied by the RUC but residents’ complaints to the police about the parade were ignored.  That night a mob spilling out of a club taunted the residents with ‘burn the fenians out.’  The Scarman Tribunal later noted that a Scottish band was involved, and it has generally been true that Scottish loyalists visiting Orange parades in Ireland often bring their own particular cocktail of sectarian bitterness.

At the Tribunal McKeague complained that Catholics had been given houses before Protestants and that by housing them in Unity Flats Belfast Corporation had “put rebels on our doorsteps.”  One SDA member, who was also a teacher, described mixed housing as a republican plot – “one of our planks was opposition to integrated housing.  The RCs had been taking over new districts, like the bottom of the Shankill.  What they do is, they get enough votes to elect a nationalist councillor, then eventually an MP . . . then gradually they will take over the whole of Northern Ireland.”

Eviction of Catholic families in Belfast continued while trouble also arose at two Orange parades in Dungiven in Co. Derry, with B Specials firing 100 live rounds.  Rioting took place on the 12 July in Derry between police and Catholic residents, and another Orange march in Dungiven saw one Catholic man killed after being hit on the head in an RUC baton charge. Francis McCloskey came to be recognised as the first person to be killed in the ‘Troubles’, dying only three days before Samuel Devenney, who had been assaulted by the RUC in Derry three months earlier.

In truth, ‘the Troubles’ can only have said to have started at this time in retrospect, and even then, it is debateable that this was the case.  Most date the start to 14/15 August 1969, when the British Army was put on the streets, and to the events immediately surrounding it, but this too invites the question – what exactly we denote when we speak of ‘the Troubles’?

In the few short weeks between the high point of the loyalist marching season on 12 July and the explosion of the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ one month later in Derry, the sectarian character of loyalism and the Unionist regime set the framework for what was about to happen.  It was not civil rights that delivered ‘the Troubles’ but the mobilisation of the repressive forces of the Northern State, and loyalist sectarian violence in response to it, that did.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 9 – the radicalisation of civil rights

Image result for bernadette devlin

Initial doubts or outright opposition to the January 1969 march by Peoples Democracy from some nationalist and civil rights’ leaders gave way to support as the march was obstructed and repeatedly attacked.  At Dungiven Catholic schoolchildren left their classes to greet the marchers while Protestant children stayed in their classrooms.  Sympathy was widespread when the marchers were attacked at Burntollet in County Derry.  It was attacked again before entering Derry City, where the Citizens Action Committee organised a reception to welcome them to their final destination.

Severe rioting broke out in the city centre after the reception and continued for several hours afterwards.  Later that night a group of RUC men, some of them drunk, attacked streets on the edge of the Bogside, smashing windows and attacking people in the street.  The DCAC decided to withdraw its truce on marching and congratulated PD on its restraint, while one prominent DCAC member promised that ‘it would be hard-line militancy until they got what they wanted.’

The DCAC accepted the need for vigilantes to protect Catholic areas, under some pressure from republicans who were among the few groups prepared to take on this activity, although DCAC stewards, later to be members of the SDLP, were also involved.  It was not however the case that republicans were automatically looked to in order to provide defence.  There were hardly enough of them for a start.

For five days a ‘Free Derry’ was created with barricades ensuring no RUC presence in the Bogside.  Patrols of local people policed the area while the RUC was excluded.  A gable-end wall was painted – ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ – while a ‘Radio Free Derry’ was created as ‘the voice of Liberation’.   Unfortunately, none of this had been prepared and the majority of people were not ready for it or what it implied.  To maintain it required some other perspective on the way forward from that of the leadership of the Citizens Action Committee, which was not at all comfortable with this type of action.  After five days the leadership of the Committee rather quickly persuaded those behind the barricades to take them down.  As McCann noted “we had neither the organisation nor the means to put resistance [to the police] into effect,” noting also that the radicals were actually members of the DCAC. However, even had they not been, it was clear that they could not have prevented their removal.

Catholic sympathy with O’Neill waned when he criticised the Burntollet marchers and their “foolhardy and irresponsible undertaking”.   Some of them were, he said, “mere hooligans ready to attack the police and others”.

While he also condemned people who “have attempted to take the law into their own hands in efforts to impede the march” and also their “disgraceful violence”, these people were simply “playing into the hands of those who are encouraging the current agitation.”  “Enough is enough, he said.  “We have heard sufficient for now about civil rights: let us hear about civic responsibility.”

Soon after Burntollet another demonstration was held in Newry organised by the local PD branch, which again faced the threat of a loyalist counter-demonstration in the mainly Catholic town.  Even when this threat was withdrawn the march was rerouted, which led to a riot, with police tenders burned and pushed into the canal that runs through the town.  The march organisers lost control while many civil rights supporters made claims that the attacks had been deliberately facilitated, with later strong suspicion of actions by an agent provocateur.

The Newry march led many people to conclude that civil rights demonstrations could no longer be carried out peacefully and that the movement had lost control over the more hot-headed and extreme elements of its support. In fact, between the end of January and the end of July 1969, there were ten occasions on which civil rights activities led to trouble and twenty-one in which they were carried out entirely peacefully, including another march in Newry on 28 June. The issue of marching however was thrust into the back-ground when Terence O’Neill called a general election for 24 February.

O’Neill faced more cabinet resignations after he announced a Commission of Enquiry into the recent events, while a majority of backbench Unionist Party MPs were now opposed to him with twelve meeting to call for his resignation.  He then called the general election, in which the Unionist Party consisted of both pro and anti-O’Neill candidates, so that some of the official Party candidates supported him and some opposed.

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The election appeared to settle nothing, with pro-O’Neill candidates getting nearly 142,000 votes and eleven seats, and the anti-O’Neill group getting nearly 131,000 and twelve seats.  O’Neill himself just scraped through in his own constituency.  Among the opposition, leaders of the civil rights movement ousted Nationalist MPs, with John Hume and Ivan Cooper elected.  The NILP made little impression losing one seat, retaining another and gaining one through Paddy Devlin, who had been active in the civil rights movement.  Devlin and six Nationalists were shortly to break with their parties and form the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), that was social democratic only in the sense that it didn’t particularly advocate anything else and Labour only in the sense that two of its MPs used to call themselves it.  The struggle for civil rights was breaking up the old parties and either replacing them or changing their character.

Peoples Democracy stood in the election on a manifesto which encompassed the established civil rights demands on the franchise, state repression and housing allocation, and added other demands such as a crash housing programme, state investment and state-owned industries with workers’ control, integrated comprehensive education and a break-up of large estates in the west to provide land for co-operative farms.

No seats were won, but PD candidates totted up 25,407 votes. Eamonn McCann stood as an NILP candidate in Foyle and if his 1,993 votes are added to those of PD, it amounted to 29 per cent of the total poll in the seats contested. In South Down, Fergus Woods came within 220 votes of unseating the Nationalist MP.

PD’s support ranged widely, from 9.2 per cent of the poll in Belfast Cromac (the only lost deposit) to 48.8 per cent in South Down. The average over the nine constituencies was 26.4 per cent. This was not strikingly different from the performance of other unsuccessful candidates with a civil rights record. Erskine Holmes of the NILP got 29 per cent of the poll in Belfast Ballynafeigh, Sheelagh Murnaghan of the Liberal Party got 14.8 per cent in North Down and another Liberal, Claude Wilton, got 35.1 per cent in City of Londonderry

Bernadette Devlin in South Londonderry achieved the best result in a Unionist-held seat, with 38.7 per cent of the poll, but this was almost the same as the Nationalist candidate who had fought the seat in the 1965 general election. In South Down, which included Newry, “the performance can best be comprehended less as a People’s Democracy achievement than as general Catholic support for a civil rights candidate.”

A new, more radical NICRA executive was elected, including two PD members, while four of the ‘Old Guard’ resigned in protest at the increased militancy of the movement.  This was partly in response to the repressive policies of the Unionist Government, which had introduced a new Public Order Bill, and partly by continuing attacks on civil rights demonstrations by the police.  In April a Westminster by-election in Mid-Ulster saw the PD candidate win the nomination as the anti-Unionist candidate, and Bernadette Devlin was duly elected with the biggest anti-Unionist majority since the seat was created in 1950.

The march to Derry, at a time when NICRA had called a truce, did not imply as profound a difference between it and the PD as might be supposed. One of NICRA’s leading members, Frank Gogarty, stated that they had been ‘blackmailed off the streets’ by loyalist intimidation and police repression. But they ‘would not remain off the streets forever’. The Government would have to give them a ‘definite timetable of reform’ or they would go back to the streets “and protest louder than ever”.

NICRA also felt obliged to extend its demands by changes in the political situation. It was not prepared to accept O’Neill’s promises and it wanted to keep up the momentum of the campaign. This made it necessary to make radical demands and to enter qualifying clauses on its former simple and clear-cut aims. A NICRA circular pointed out that the shortage of jobs and houses created a situation in which discrimination flourished, and demanded that the Stormont and Westminster Governments fund a crash house-building programme, while in areas of high unemployment the Government should start local industries as they had started the Forestry Commission.

It called for trade-union law to be brought into line with British law, for the disbandment of the B Specials and for the RUC to cease carrying revolvers. It had, in other words, adopted a number of demands that had been put forward by Peoples Democracy. Both organisations were opposed to Stormont’s new Public Order Bill, which made it necessary to give longer notice of parades and banned counter-demonstrations, sit-downs and the occupation of buildings.

This was clearly an attempt to impede the civil rights campaign and deny it legitimacy.  It was opposed by the new MPs elected out of the civil rights campaign but their failure to stop it simply repeated previous failures to prevent unionist repression through the Stormont parliament.  It was an important reason for the DCAC to relaunch the civil rights campaign in Derry, confirming the strength of the forces radicalising the civil rights campaign, affecting even in its ‘moderate’ sections.

The campaign appeared to have the support from the full range of forces it had previously encompassed, from the Nationalist Party to the Labour left.  At one sit-down protest John Hume insisted that “the politics of the street must continue until fundamental justice has been achieved”; but only a week later a repeat of the October 5 march in Derry was followed by clashes between Protestant and Catholic youths, and the other prominent MP Ivan Cooper declared that he would “press for an end to marches.”

A demonstration to re-create the January PD march from Burntollet was cancelled at the last minute with the resulting confusion prompting youths in Derry to carry out a sit-down protest that was then broken up by the RUC.   While this was happening loyalists confronted Catholic crowds in the centre of the city, which the RUC attacked leading to three days of ferocious rioting.  During the clashes some RUC pursued rioters through a house in the Bogside, severely beating several people who lived in it, including the father of the household, Samuel Devenney.  Part of the Bogside was evacuated while republicans organised defence committees and the moderates of the DCAC sought to avoid clashes between the Catholic population and the RUC.

The behaviour of the RUC, defence from their attacks and the end of Catholic support for it, or even tolerance of it, became the primary immediate issues.  The RUC, in the words of a senior English policeman, was ‘not a police force in the English sense.  It is a para-military organisation accountable to a minister.’  At this time around 10 per cent of the force was Catholic and, alongside the Orange Order, was an important pillar of the Unionist regime.

While, until the summer of 1969, most of the violence that had erupted had been confined to Derry, this now changed.  That the character of the problem had already changed in Derry, where the existing civil rights agenda of an end to discrimination had been to the forefront, showed that the rapid shift to one of defence from the RUC was inevitable given the thoroughly sectarian character of the state machinery and composition of the unionist regime.

Without satisfactory reform the civil rights movement would not and could not be prevented from going onto the streets, despite the misgivings of many ‘moderates’, but equally the unwillingness of the Unionist regime to grant the reforms meant their sectarian police force were placed in the way of protest.  The Stormont government’s Public Order Bill signalled that the Unionist Government were attempting to employ repression to substitute for the full reforms the civil rights movement demanded.  But this was to fail very quickly.

Back to part 8

Forward to part 10

In the shadow of Brexit

Back in May I wrote a post ‘It’s not about supporting Jeremy Corbyn anymore’, which stated it was about opposing Brexit, and ditching Labour’s disastrous support for it, poorly disguised in such a way as to piss off anyone with a strong view on the matter. I said after the European elections in which the Tories came fifth, with less than 10 per cent of the vote that –

“The Tories only need a new leader promising Brexit, with a bit more credibility, to have a hope of some recovery, and they’re electing one.  And if they fall short it will not be because Labour has surged forward but because Farage has managed to carry forward his success into a general election.”

But of course, Farage was pulled into line by those with the money and the only significant shift in Labour’s policy was support for a second referendum, except that I noted at the same time that “it’s not about a referendum – if Labour supported some version of Brexit to be approved by a referendum Corbyn would be politically as dead as a Monty Python parrot.”  Which he now is, because his promise to negotiate his own Brexit, and then put it to a vote without committing to supporting it, made no sense.  Then he defeated a motion to support Remain at the Labour conference while promising that a future conference would decide.

In a Facebook discussion I was admonished for not recognising that the gains of the Corbyn movement were a massively increased left membership, a sprinkling of new left MPs and an audience for anti-capitalist ideas.

That a mass membership was encouraged by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is clear, but it also became clear that for this leadership the role of the movement was to follow the leader, not to transform the Party into the social movement that many hoped and believed it should become.  That’s why a claim could only be made that there was a smattering of new left MPs.  This is as much the legacy of Corbyn as defeat in two elections and a divided and untransformed Party, with no clear successor never mind a good range of candidates from which the left membership could choose.

As for an audience for anti-capitalism, I believe in something which is so much more than this negative identification and that has for two hundred years gone a long way in demonstrating not only what is wrong with capitalism but also setting out the alternative.  Brexit itself is a sort of anti-capitalism, in the Lexit, reactionary, stop the development of modern capitalism sort of way that wants to go backwards to when the nation state set the framework of economic and social development.  The proclamation of anti-capitalism as a touchstone is a political retreat and confusion by the left and is consistent with such anti-capitalist phenomenon as Stalinism, and other reactionary populist politics that are inconsistent with the fullest development of capitalism but also antithetical to socialism.

While Corbyn might be leaving the stage, we continue to be under the shadow of his triangulated Brexit policy, including the narrative of a non-existent principle that we must respect a reactionary referendum result regardless of its consequences.  Also included is the idea of a Labour Brexit, one that will supposedly be progressive but bizarrely involves no commitment to supporting it, in fact a declaration of neutrality by the leader with further evasion through postponing a conference that would determine the Party’s position in any second referendum

These are only some of the contortions that have characterised Corbyn’s Brexit policy.  To declare surprise at his unpopularity in the election after such a catalogue of evasion is to audition for the role of one or all of the three wise monkeys.

The failure to openly and honestly fight for Brexit by the leadership, hiding behind six tests; the nonsense of a Labour deal with all the benefits of EU membership but none of the costs; weeks of talks with Theresa May to identify a common Brexit policy, and then claims that a deal could be agreed and voted on within six months (because the EU had agreed to Labour policy!), all this continues to confuse.

For what is most striking about Corbyn and his Brexit policy is not his opposition to Remain but his inability to argue for Brexit.  Like the small left groups who claim that explicit support for Brexit would have defeated the Tories, they fail to explain how all those who are happy to vote for the Tories and Brexit Party could be won to a Labour Brexit that would be denounced as a fraud; or explain what price would be paid in terms of the reactionary politics of nationalism and racism that would be necessary to adopt even to make the attempt.

And what would these groups expect the 68 per cent of Labour’s voters who voted Remain to do while such a policy was pursued, including those in the North of England – in the ‘traditional working class’ areas – who voted to Remain?  How could it ever become Party policy when an even greater percentage of the Labour membership support Remain?

The answer, of course, is that it couldn’t.  And because it couldn’t it wasn’t, although this did not prevent all these groups declaring the need for the impossible – open Labour support for Brexit – that they didn’t even fight for themselves. When was this openly presented as the policy to be supported, as opposed to all the duplicitous evasions listed above?

What exactly was Lexit?  What would it entail? For some it seemed not to matter after it was assumed it would happen – the detail was unimportant, only the economic policy of a future left British Government would matter.  For others it was all the benefits but none of the costs – membership of the customs union and Single Market but no free movement of people and no seat at the table that sets the rules because Britain could help set them from outside, or ignore them if it wanted.  For others it became no deal and trade on WTO terms, sometimes with the lie that these WTO rules meant no real change to the current trading arrangements for years. For others, supporting Brexit seemed only a matter of timing (it was an ok idea before but not now) and a question of who would lead the caravan across the desert and not where it was going.  No wonder there was no open fight inside the Party to win it to explicit support for Brexit.

So now we have a leadership contest where we are threatened with all this vacuous and reactionary nonsense again, with added soundbites and personality claims that only embarrass the listener.

And the obfuscation also continues.  The latest piece I’ve read is an attack on “obsessive Remainers” who have scored “a massive own goal” because they pushed for a second referendum and thereby brought about the victory of Johnson and a hard Brexit.

While it is arguable that a second referendum was not the way to stop Brexit – that was better carried out by a general election in which Labour committed to stopping it – the real claim is that a Labour Brexit was the way forward.  In other words, this is another Brexit-supporting proposition that doesn’t quite declare its love but criticises those who had the temerity to openly fight for Remain.  That this was far from a lost cause can be appreciated from the vote at the Labour conference before the election, when only some sharp practice prevented such a policy being adopted.

While the target is those who fought for Remain the argument is framed around the centrist opposition, represented by “Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, and Chuka Umunna [who] knew how to play the media and get their message across”, plus the Peoples Vote campaign.

Absent from the analysis are the millions of people this campaign mobilised who were far from all being supporters of the Labour right, and who represented a movement that a Brexit-opposing Labour Party could easily have challenged for leadership of, but which Corbyn through his absence demonstrated opposition.  Along with failure to democratise the Party, this abandonment of a progressive mass campaign to a right-wing leadership is the most criminal of Corbyn’s failings.

Absent also, is any appreciation of the mass support of the voters and members of the Labour Party who also opposed Brexit and are the key constituency defining the possibilities that socialists have to make any significant step forward.  Instead we are invited by supporters of Brexit to orient to a so-called traditional working class that no longer exists in its previous form because the industrial, social and political environment that created it was destroyed.

The article states that “It would be fatuous to scold liberals for not supporting Corbynism, a project that was never their own (although some did claim to support the kind of social-democratic policies that Labour spelled out in its election manifestos). But we can certainly blame them for undermining their own self-proclaimed goal: to stop Brexit . . .”   Scolding  liberals, however, is all that the article does, so it is doubly fatuous by the fact that the author isn’t concerned that Brexit be stopped, so why would anyone with such an aim pay any heed to it?

The hypothesis is put forward that “a so-called ‘soft-Brexit’ deal would have been a perfectly acceptable framework for Labour to carry out domestic social reforms: a step sideways, not a step backward”, a claim made not in order to prevent “rewriting history and shifting the blame”, but to define the next step forward, including the identity of the new leadership of the Party.

This claim is certainly less bold than the ‘jobs Brexit’ claimed by the leadership of the Labour Party but it is still false: the exit of the UK from the EU will put up barriers to migration, trade, investment and economic growth that will very definitely not simply be “a step sideways”. Only those on the left who think that stuffing capitalism or a capitalism in crisis is the objective (i.e. ‘anti-capitalism’) could mistake this as a step forward for the working class.

The best opportunity to achieve the ‘soft’ Brexit that the author considers acceptable was when “Labour came forward with its own platform for the Brexit negotiations that set out clearly the terms of a soft-Brexit deal. It was practical and achievable — and the leading EU officials said so publicly.”

Unfortunately, this “perfectly acceptable framework for Labour to carry out domestic social reforms: a step sideways, not a step backward” turns out to be modification of Theresa May’s deal.

This proposal involved five tests which included ridiculous ideas such as leaving the EU while having a say in the EU’s trade policy, and a claim that a customs union would allow frictionless trade, which is also nonsense.  It could not therefore, as it claimed, prevent a border inside Ireland.

Calls for ‘close alignment with the single market’ does not mean membership of the single market, which anyway would be impossible if the UK left the EU, but which then raises questions of what barriers would this Brexit cause the UK to fall behind, and how much would it assume of having your cake and eating it.  The proposal was for “clear arrangements for dispute resolution” but the EU has these and they’re not going to be subject to British influence.

It is claimed that this platform was “practical and achievable” but if Brexit has taught everyone anything it is that detail is the devil that cannot be ignored and that it isn’t practical and achievable unless it is explained, and it wasn’t.

So, it is not true that the EU considered that this Labour proposal was both practical and achievable, but rather simply a step forward in the right direction, a diplomatic way of opening negotiations that would sort out the detail and remove what nonsense elements were included.  The press interpreted this as a step towards the Norway option but apart from the enormous agreements required to replicate such an option for the very different UK economy, it would involve acceptance of EU rules, which is what is claimed to be the problem, and renunciation of any say in making these rules, which is the purpose of a social democratic government.  How would this have made any sense even if it had been “practical and achievable”?

Another example of the potential for a Labour ‘soft’ Brexit is given by reference to the alternatives to Theresa May’s deal voted on in the House of Commons.  It is noted that the closest to succeeding, losing by only four votes, was Kenneth Clarke’s ‘’customs union’ proposal.  But this, like the rest, got less votes than Theresa May’s deal and only got as close as it did because of abstentions.  Given the lack of clarity in the proposal any clarification was more likely to provoke opposition.

The paucity of these so-called alternatives that might have avoided the disaster of Johnson’s victory, as the article would have it, is precisely shown by the one that came closest to succeeding.  It was so vague it didn’t actually constitute a plan.

It didn’t touch on the single market so wouldn’t have addressed the backstop for Ireland that was the centre of the controversy.  Its customs union didn’t make clear whether it would be dynamically aligned with further development of the EU customs union, or whether the European Court of Justice would have jurisdiction, or whether it was meant as an attempt to go back to arrangements created in 1973 when the UK joined the EEC.  And it didn’t say anything about what arrangements would apply to the 80 per cent of the UK economy comprised of services.  But apart from that it could have been a winner?

While it might seem very passé to go through all this again, the argument about Brexit hasn’t gone away and is very far from being done.  The time given for agreeing future arrangements after officially leaving at the end of next month is not long enough to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal.  If any deal is made, or number of sector specific side-deals agreed, it will not be enough to maintain current levels of trade.  Jobs, living standards and employment will all suffer and the identity of the cause will not be hard to find. All Tory promises about nursing and police numbers, however counted, and of new investment in infrastructure, will be unaffordable, unless borrowing increases significantly, which would only cause its own problems of increased interest rates.

If, on the other hand, the transition period is extended, Johnson’s purpose in doing so will damage his credibility and he will come under pressure from the ultra-supporting Brexiteers.

All this will raise challenges to the new leadership of the Labour Party, which will have to do a lot better than its triangulation over the last three years.  Yet, the issue that defined the election, determined the defeat and will determine and define the next period, has not so far been placed clearly at the centre of the debate over who should be the new Labour leadership.

The policy pursued by Corbyn of pretending every other issue matters more, that the question has been settled, that everyone will move on, that tail-ending the Tories by making piecemeal criticisms while having no principled or oppositionist alternative, or any combination of these disastrous approaches, will allow all the problems stored up by Johnsons to be overcome, or at the very least prevent Labour taking advantage of Tory failures.

The majority of people rejected Johnson’s reactionary policies, including Brexit.  Labour can choose to represent this majority or chase after that minority who will become increasingly disenchanted with it and who will have only three alternatives to choose from.

The first is that pursued by the majority so far – forget about the promises of market access and easy trade agreements and accept only the hardest of exits as a real Brexit.  The Labour Party cannot win by appealing to the more and more radicalised reactionaries who will follow this course.

The second is acceptance of what will become increasingly apparent – that Brexit cannot deliver on its promises and was a mistake.  A soft-Brexit approach will become less convincing to Remainers as it appears more and more pointless and may become indistinguishable from Johnson’s policy, should he so choose.  In effect the Labour Party would be hostage to the vagaries of Johnson’s opportunism and lies.  Labour will get little credit for mild criticism of a policy seen to fail so thoroughly.

The third is that a section of Brexit supporters will retreat into political inactivity and apathy as their prejudices are dashed, at which point ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ will be blamed for the world not behaving as they think it should. Labour will not win by appealing to the prejudiced and deluded.

For all these reasons the lessons of the Brexit election need to be learned and the great schism in the left between those who have trailed behind this reactionary project and those who have opposed it will have to be settled.  Settling it will not be achieved by reconciliation of socialist internationalists to a successor Corbynista leader, who may simply follow the Brexit water down the plug-hole in ever decreasing and quickening circles.

Whoever is considered best to be the next leader and whatever their strengths and weaknesses, the left must prioritise opposition to Brexit and democratisation of the Party and judge the candidates on this basis.  This will involve examination of candidates’ platform and the forces ranged behind them.  If it is the Labour apparatus and union bureaucrats that is their base, these will determine the favoured candidates future policies.  It is not enough to seek the candidate most likely to defeat any soft left or openly centrist candidate because without opposition to Brexit and fulfilment of Party democracy the return of the right wing will only have been prepared and not prevented.