Last year saw tributes to fifty years since the civil rights movement hit the headlines. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the troubles in 1969. If the first was remembered as the harbinger of hope the second will be recalled for dashing these hopes.
It is important to recall these events in order to inform those too young to have been there of just exactly what happened and what the political significance of the events was; and to remind everyone of events that occurred that have not only been forgotten but deliberately no longer recounted because they do not fit the now standard narrative of how the troubles started. This is true also for socialists because there are lessons that can be learned, or at least discussed, which challenge many elements of today’s received wisdom.
Reading about the period again puts into place certain personal episodes which I have remembered imperfectly as isolated events but which can be located within the broader narrative.
Since I was only a child when these events happened impressions are all that I have. The most dramatic is of hunkering under the table with the lights out and internal doors placed over the front windows of the house to protect us from stray bullets that were exchanged up and down the street in a gun battle between the British Army at one end and the IRA at the other.
Earlier in the year I recall wondering where my two friends in the street had gone when I returned from my annual summer holiday spent with my granny in Glasgow. It turns out that the two girls had, with their family, been forced to leave their house because they were Catholics in a predominantly Protestant area, one that pretty soon was to become a centre of loyalist paramilitary organisation.
That year my sister can remember being caught up with my mother in a riot at the bottom of the Shankill Road as loyalists attacked the predominantly Catholic Unity Flats at the bottom of the road. Only the kindness of an unknown man meant that they were shepherded away through the backstreets of the Shankill Road up to our home in Woodvale.
It was not until a couple of years later that I became aware that I was not really in sympathy with the wider unionist ‘culture’, as it is now called. My parents were socialists, and whatever limits there were to their politics, it didn’t include belief in the compatibility of socialism with monarchy and anti-Catholic sectarianism. They had attended meetings in support of civil rights and voted for the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
I later learned that at a house party in our street at around this time, when everyone had been asked to sing a favourite song, my mother sang ‘We shall Overcome’, the anthem of the civil rights campaign. God knows how that went down. I also later learned that my Father would get drunk and sing the ‘Red Flag’ in pubs on the Road, which would normally lead to getting a severe hiding were it not for his friends and his lifelong residence confirming his provenance as really ‘one of ours’ – a Prod from the Road.
None of this makes for an understanding of the political dynamics of the period and how they should be judged by socialists, which is what I want to write about. It does however allow me to make two important points.
First, that the civil rights movement had some, if limited, sympathy within the Protestant working class. And two, that this sympathy expresses progressive impulses which should not be besmirched by later attempts to pretend that working class loyalism is in any way progressive, when it is this loyalism that is an immediate obstacle and threat to the development of socialism in the Protestant working class.
One of the worst experiences of the last 40 years of my political activity in Ireland was sitting at a Socialist Party meeting in a Dublin trade union hall listening to an SP leader praise the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force – the Progressive Unionist Party – for introducing socialism into Protestant working class areas. This included parading Billy Hutchinson as the embodiment of this, despite him being a sectarian killer who declared in an interview that he had no regrets, since his actions had prevented a united Ireland. According to his Wikipedia page he also participated in the riots at Unity Flats.
This does not mean that I subscribe to the view that there is a relatively straight-forward political programme that answers the problems posed by partition and sectarian division. In fact I have written a number of posts beginning here that point to the problems posed today in elaborating a socialist perspective.
This series of posts is an exercise in being, what I hope is, wiser after the event, which is infinitely better than not being wiser. If you can’t do this after the event there is really no hope of you learning anything. As the very un-Marxist philosopher Kierkegaard said – “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” We will learn from history in order to make whatever attempt we can to change it better next time – “fail better” perhaps, in the words of Samuel Beckett.
What must strike anyone reading of the period, and current reflections on it, is the ready acknowledgement by many of the participants that they didn’t fully understand what was going on at the time. So one examination of the lessons of the civil rights campaign accepts that –
“We were blind to the complexities. We believed in our new enthusiasm that we could appropriate ready-made tactics of moral persuasion and mass nonviolence resistance. We were unaware of the complexities of the American black and radical movements and of the sharp debate around very real differences. We did not realise that the tactics and strategy of the civil rights movement in America were contested there and that that strategy would be contested in Ireland also.”
Another prominent participant, Eamonn McCann, admits that:
“Anybody who looks back on 50 years and says, ‘I never made a mistake’, is a liar or a fool. We all make mistakes. Huge mistakes were made in the 1960s in the course of the broad civil rights movement. But I think the civil rights movement achieved an awful lot.”
And it is not that this confusion and lack of clarity, leading to disagreement and mistakes, was not obvious at the time. One only has to read the New Left Review interview with the leaders of Peoples Democracy in 1969 to see the obvious lack of coherence.
So, Eamonn McCann says in the interview that “the consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian” while the next answer from Michael Farrell states that “we have radicalised the Catholic working class to quite a considerable extent and to some degree got across to them the necessity of non-sectarianism and even the fact that their Protestant fellow workers are almost as much exploited as they are”
To which McCann replies – “I think this assessment is very wrong . . . I believe we have failed to get our position across in the last six months”. Bernadette Devlin (as then was) then says that “People outside Northern Ireland fail to appreciate the confusion that exists here; nobody knows what they want or how to achieve it . . .” And then she goes on “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves. I’d say there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .”
Today this lack of agreement continues, with the first writer linked above stating that “the CRM [Civil Rights Movement] was defeated”, while Eamonn McCann makes a less clear-cut judgement – “It was by no means perfect, but I do think it emerges with great credit from the history of the last 50 years and it is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North, certainly since the coming of the women’s movement . . . I think it was a very significant success which didn’t last. That’s the way I look at it. It absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland.”
I think a movement that “is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North” but which absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland” might be close to the truth.
In any case, this series of posts is premised on the view that the issues and arguments that arose during the period from civil rights to ‘the troubles’ is still relevant not only to understanding what happened then but to socialist strategy today, not only in the North of Ireland but more generally.
So traduced has this history become that we have seen Sinn Fein claim ownership of the civil rights campaign when the creation of the Provisional Republican Movement was based on the militants who rejected the political course of the existing Republican Movement which supported that campaign, and rejected political struggle in general as a way forward. The civil rights movement issued at least partly out of the Republican Movement that the Provisionals rejected and preceded their birth.
This series of posts will not present a comprehensive narrative of the history of the civil rights campaign and start of the troubles but will look at the most important themes and developments that should be re-examined today. The next post will look at the creation of the civil rights movement.