BBC, DUP & Brexit

BBC's Andrew Marr slammed for 'poor research' on Brexit NI Protocol -  BelfastTelegraph.co.uk

In last weekend’s Marr show the  BBC rallied behind those Brexit forces, which would appear to be almost all of them, who still can’t get their head around the idea that you can’t leave the EU without consequences and that these consequences are not a punishment but actually what they voted for.

This time it was the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Edwin Poots, who was allowed to forget that it was his Party that had helped deliver Brexit and in a form that didn’t allow Northern Ireland to join with the rest of the UK in its new relationship with the EU.  Such a deal, as proposed by Theresa May, was opposed by the DUP as insufficiently Brexity.

Marr appeared to labour under the impression that the Northern Ireland Protocol is solely the EU’s baby and not a joint production with the British Government. Perhaps to be regarded as another one of Boris Johnson’s unrecognised children?

One even had sympathy with the EU representative who had to respond politely to the ignorant and repeated interruptions of Marr, including the latter’s injured innocence that the EU should seek to take legal action against the British for breach of their legal obligations under the Protocol.  Not for him the previous obvious and hardly avoidable observation that – for the DUP – it was “arguably your political incompetence that got you here.”

Marr pushed the incoherent unionist argument that they were so offended by the very temporary suggestion of the EU to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol in order to amend its operation that this was what was required, this time by the British Government.

While sarcastically referencing the ‘sacred’ Single Market, the one Brexit supporters want out of but also to enjoy its benefits, Marr pointed to an opinion poll in Northern Ireland which showed that ‘48% hate the Protocol’.  

‘Hate’ of course is a strong word; was not quite what the question asked, and presumably must mean that while 48% ‘hate it”, 46% also ‘love it’.  The numbers are within the margin of error, and repeating the unionist assertion that speaks of the people of Northern Ireland as if it consisted solely of unionists, the other assertion of Marr – that ‘the people of Northern Ireland have lost faith in the Protocol’ – was hardly justified by the poll.

The BBC, through Marr, appeared to adopt the view of unionism encapsulated in such mottos as ‘we are the people’ and ‘our wee country’, which may be properly understood as ‘WE are the people and ‘OUR wee country’.  That the majority in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit is ignored as unionism, and now the BBC, considers that the rights of the majority of unionism takes precedence.

But perhaps the BBC is also registering something else, which is the evolving strategy of its master – the British Government.

At the beginning of the year the incoherence of unionist rejection of the Protocol led the DUP leader Arlene Foster to point to its benefits (as the alternative to futile opposition).  Unionist hostility spoke of changes to the Protocol.  Now this opposition demands its complete removal.

A large part of this hardening of position derives from the encouragement of the British Government, in a cynical attempt to play the Orange card and support its own policy of seeking changes but not complete abolition.

Of course, British opposition is mainly motivated by the attempt to create leverage elsewhere in UK-EU relations and not any particular priority allotted to the North of Ireland.  So, when it is reported that ‘a senior ally of the Prime. Minister’ says that the Protocol is “dead in the water” this is simply playing to the gallery, in this case just after Lord Frost and the Tory Secretary of State had met loyalist paramilitaries represented by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC).

Similarly, Poots’ total opposition puts forward, as an alternative, checks on goods in other locations within Northern Ireland “including the ports.”  This however rather undermines his argument that the level of such checks makes them impossible and doesn’t carry any weight when it is to the checks themselves that is the objection.  The promise of any such alternative is about as trustworthy as a promise from Boris Johnson. 

Unionists want the Protocol destroyed and the British Government would like it filleted for other purposes.  Neither are acceptable to the EU.

The increased legitimacy given by the British Government to the paramilitary front organisation is illustrated by its providing a platform to the LCC at a Westminster Committee hearing, allowing a teenage loyalist to make the statement that he stands by previous remarks that “sometimes violence is the only tool you have left.”

That the Orange card is being played is made abundantly clear when the Tories reveal that the 12th July has been “privately set” by David Frost for the easing of Protocol checks.  The culmination of the loyalist marching season is now aligned with deadline for acceptance of the demands of the British Government.

Such recklessness by the Tory regime passes right over Andrew Marr’s head, while he accuses the EU of endangering the peace process.  He denigrates the EU Single Market, but is unwilling even to raise the question whether the vast majority of European States constituting the EU is going to roll over on account of teenage threats on behalf of criminal gangs; the pronouncements of creationist politicians, or as a result of the perfidy of the serial liars of the British Government.

Unionist opposition, backed by the British, may have hardened but the reality of their mistaken Brexit policy has simply compounded their frustration at their inability to push the peace process in a sufficiently rightward direction, a process many of them never supported in the first place.  As unionism has hardened it has also thereby divided.

The DUP is now irreversibly split down the middle.  The only question is what organisational from this division will take.  It is haemorrhaging support to the softer unionist Alliance Party and the even more uncompromising Traditional Unionist Voice.

It has attempted to protect one flank by making overtures to the loyalist paramilitaries in the LCC (by both sides of the current split) but this has proceeded to claims that the UDA has intimidated DUP members to support the new leadership.

The paramilitaries are themselves united in opposition to the Protocol but divided on everything else, so that what appear as marginal figures present as leading spokesmen of loyalist opposition.

On the other side of unionism, its moderate commentators denounce EU ‘intransigence’ while calling on it to protect Northern Ireland from the potential for unionism to finish off the Stormont Executive.  Unfortunately, the DUP has made promises in its opposition to the EU that it cannot keep and the EU has no interest in ensuring that they are kept.  The party may soon no longer be the largest political party or even the largest unionist party.

To expect the EU to capitulate to such a weakened and fractured opposition and a British Government flailing about for trade deals that won’t deliver is to live in an alternative universe.

The EU seeks to become a major political as well as economic power on the world stage.  It expects to be taken seriously by the likes of China, Russia and the United States.  Whatever ‘pragmatic’ changes it is prepared to make to the workings of the Protocol will not amount to accepting any significant risk to its Single Market. Such changes as are proposed will require the British Government to introduce all the measures agreed by it but not implemented.

The failing and weakening of the Good Friday Agreement institutions will continue as will the parallel confusion of unionism.  The Northern State will continue to hold together and no Irish unity referendum will come along soon to save everyone from the decay.  Out of all these processes it is ironically only the successful operation of the EU Protocol that promises some grounds for successful, if only temporary, stabilisation.

A Brexit compromise with Unionism?

In the previous post I argued that there should be no attempt to conciliate unionism, and certainly not by socialists.  Although its politics is entirely reactionary this is what is being proposed by a number of commentators who really should know better.

In one blog, a comment asserted that the ‘institutions of the [Northern] State are errand boys for Sinn Féin, who are errand girls for the Army Council, which is a body of totally unreconstructed IRA hard men from back in the day.  Moreover, it is an almost entirely Northern body, on the cusp of taking control of a 26 County State.’

This, of course, is phantasy.  Locally, the regular columnist in the nationalist newspaper questioned whether ‘sectarian control [has] simply changed hands?’ and asserted that it was ‘difficult to avoid the observation’.

This ignores recent history that is littered with loyalist riots against what they see as encroachment on their rights by Catholics.  Indeed, such riots played a major role in the start of ‘the Troubles’ with such inconvenient facts as the first policeman killed being shot by loyalists.

Conciliation has already been adopted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland pretending that loyalist paramilitaries are not involved in organising and leading the riots.  Its first statement pointed the finger but refrained from outright assignment of responsibility.  It waited until the umbrella group for the main paramilitary groups had issued an appropriate statement denying involvement, and calling for only peaceful action, before stating that these organisations had not ‘sanctioned’ violent protest and that only individuals may have been involved.  This is the normal way of trying to prevent escalation; part of what was called a long time ago an ‘acceptable level of violence.’

The Unionist columnist Newton Emerson has written in a number of Irish newspapers that compromise with loyalist demands should be made to protect the peace process.  After all, warnings by nationalists and the Irish Government that republican violence would follow any Brexit land border within the island had led to it being placed down the Irish Sea.  If Irish nationalism could threaten violence to get its way what’s wrong with unionism doing the same?

There is some obvious truth in this, except that a hardened land border, while not strictly contrary to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as often claimed, would not only serve (dissident) republicans but would also severely undermine the current political arrangements.

In the GFA nationalists were to accept the legitimacy of partition and of the Northern State in return for some cross-border bodies, a hypothetical mechanism to bring about a united Ireland through a border poll, one however that was in the gift of the British Government, and a power-sharing Stormont regime that included an effective sectarian veto on change for both sides, which of course is more obstacle than opportunity for those seeking change.

If the border were to be strengthened as a result of a hard Brexit that most of unionism supported while the majority in the North of Ireland opposed, and with the stupidity of the DUP coming back to haunt them in loyalist riots, nationalism might consider that promises are cheap but reality expensive.  It was not republican dissidents that put a border down the Irish Sea but the Irish Government and the EU with the blessing of senior US politicians.

Emerson goes on to ask ‘should we risk restarting the Troubles ‘over inspecting packets of ham at Larne?’  He queries the evidence and reason for believing that the EU Single Market ‘would otherwise be swamped via circuitous smuggling of food through Britain and Northern Ireland.’

He also, in rather contradictory fashion, suggests a law-and-order solution to smuggling across the Irish border and maximum mitigation of the effects of the Protocol in order to assuage loyalist paramilitaries who, although almost defeated, require concessions.  In this regard there are further press reports of money for these paramilitaries in a continuation of the policy of weening them off criminality and political violence by giving them what they want.  Alongside this a law-and-order solution would be applied to the really delinquent factions.

All this is washed down by the admission that ‘at some point we will have to confront the moral squalor of giving in to violence but that moment is hardly now, when so little might be required to prevent violence.  Rather it would be immoral to prioritise hypothetical ham over life and property.’

Of course, the ham is far from hypothetical and Emerson gives every indication of suffering from the illusion of the supporters of Brexit who never understood the magnitude of the decision they supported.  He regards the potential breach of the EU Single Market as small, although both the EU and British sought to use the North of Ireland as leverage in the overall Trade and Cooperation Agreement, promoting its importance to any overall deal.

There is no reason to believe that loopholes would not be exploited and no reason for the EU to believe that the British Government would not seek to exploit concessions or mitigation or whatever term is used to fudge the regulations.  The British have openly breached agreements already reached and failed to implement practical measures, such as  installation of inspection posts and access to data, that it promised to deliver.

The EU has claimed that the most difficult issues could be solved by the British agreeing to synchronise their food standards with those of the EU but the British have ruled this out, and while the British have asked for flexibility the EU has stated that they must first implement what they have already agreed.

It would go too far to say that loyalism and the British Government are in cahoots, the latter is not attempting to get rid of the Protocol altogether, but the pressure applied by both is in the same direction.

The Single Market may not seem so dramatic as yet another political crisis in Northern Ireland but the EU has more interest in the former than the latter: concessions that are given only to Britain might easily give rise to discrimination cases against the EU.  More generally, retreating on the basis of pressure from political violence does not set a good example for any other potential challenges to Brussels and member states.

There is no reason or evidence to believe that smuggling would not take place on the Irish border were it also to become the border for Brexit, or to believe that such smuggling would need to ‘swamp’ the EU Single Market for it to matter to the EU.  On the other hand there is good reason to believe that mitigation of the trade border in the Irish Sea would not be enough for loyalism. For the EU, checks on any border would have to mean something and if they did loyalism would object.

There is no doubting that these checks are onerous and will increase after the transition but the negotiations between the EU and British to find technical solutions do not warrant the view that the Protocol will be effectively removed.  These negotiations were reported by RTE and the Guardian, with some sceptical coverage of them by one informed blogger.

There has so far not been enough direct impact on imports to motivate those not consumed by potential constitutional implications to protest.  As Emerson points out, Marks & Spencer has just announced the opening of a new food store in Coleraine, and Covid-19 has been a much more immediate barrier than Brexit to people getting what they want.

This does not mean that loyalism is not angry, or has cause, but their anger should really be directed to the DUP who led them up the garden path with Boris Johnson at the forefront. Nevertheless, while loyalism does not need to be particularly coherent, there are also limits to what an incoherent view of the world will achieve in bending that world to its own misapprehensions.

Emerson’s law-and-order solution does not seem to recognise the incongruity of calling for increased repression of dissident republicans and others in order to reduce ‘paperwork’.  He wants a retreat on policing of protest demonstrations that are held within unionist-majority areas so as to avoid ‘confrontation’, but it’s not clear how much consideration he has given to the minority living within these ‘unionist-majority areas’.

Of course, in most Protestant areas Orange marches are generally popular and there can be little doubt that a majority of Protestants oppose the protocol and would have sympathy with the aims of demonstrations against it.  The majority would have less sympathy with the paramilitaries who often accompany such displays and that is their problem: one doesn’t come without the other.  Emerson forgets that the immediate victims of loyalist paramilitaries are Protestants in working class areas who are often presented as the paramilitaries’ political constituency, in so far as they can claim one.

He is right therefore to acknowledge the ‘moral squalor’ involved in concessions to loyalism but over twenty years from the deal that was supposed to bring peace and an end to them, we apparently have to make some more, and to the same people.   He says that ‘we’ have to make them but the majority of the population have had no choice in the matter.  His ‘giving in to violence’ has in the past not only involved ‘giving in’ but the sponsorship of loyalist paramilitaries by the British State through all sorts of collusion.  This has involved not only accepting loyalist violence but protecting its perpetrators and assisting its organisation and effectiveness through state agents.  In his seemingly bold and brave admission of unfortunate necessity we are to forget what it has meant in the past.

If Newton Emerson’s proposals have any educative value, they show the limitations of unionist opinion, even from its most intelligent and least prejudiced sources.  It reminds me of the statement last week by First Minister Arlene Foster who, after riots and petrol bombs, and with one bus driver attacked in a case of “attempted murder”, declared that these actions were an “embarrassment” and “only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.”

In the mind of unionism, even when its their fault it’s really someone else’s, anybody else’s.  Brexit was a unionist own-goal which they are trying to reverse.  Socialists have no interest in defending their seventeenth century reaction from twenty-first century capitalism.  It would be good if the many on the left in Ireland who also supported Brexit would acknowledge that they too have made a mistake.

Back to part 1

Recognising Unionist rights?

A Belfast bus burning on the Shankill Road

The recent riots in the North of Ireland have been described as the worst for some years.  It is not that they are particularly large or violent.  In fact, they have been localised and rather small, many rioters being not much more than children. Some have arisen from loyalist groups more involved in criminality than politics and kicking back at policing too effective for their liking.

So why the concern?  The first is that they might get out of control and gather momentum.  The summer is the traditional unionist marching season so there will be plenty of opportunities for disturbances.  This is especially the case now that the state is going to have to relax the Covid lockdown.  A second is concern that the Boris Johnson Government is not considered to have the skills to pacify the situation, or may even have reasons to keep the pot boiling.

It is his betrayal of the unionists in his ‘fantastic’ – ‘oven-ready’ – Brexit deal that has been the main reason for the eruption of unionist anger.  If the definition of stupidity is believing anything he says then the Democratic Unionist Party has shown itself to be the dumbest of the dumb.  Yet even now their leaders call on him to do the right thing and scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union; something with much bigger ramifications for the British state than riots in Ireland.

The placing down the Irish Sea of the inevitable trade border arising from Northern Ireland staying in the EU Single Market is, as unionists claim, a clear separation of it from Great Britain, even if nationalists and others claim it has no constitutional significance.  Its maintenance would be a reverse for unionism and cause for demoralisation.  While the same barriers are in place between Britain and the Irish State, the effect is to encourage further North-South economic integration.  This, however, is of most significance from a longer term perspective and the Brexit deal excludes services, where it might be expected that the British and EU economies might diverge, with possible similar effects between the two states in Ireland.

The leader of the DUP Arlene Foster started off the year more or less accepting the NI Protocol and pointing out that Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets gave it certain advantages in terms of trade and foreign investment.  The more bitter DUP MPs, such as Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, nevertheless continued to denounce the betrayal, perhaps all the more so because they had been personally associated with being taken for fools.  Leaked minutes of a DUP meeting appeared to indicate that at least some DUP members had about as much respect for these figures as many of us outside.

Which brings us to one of the more immediate causes of unionist agitation.  As pointed out in a previous post the main cause for the swift change of direction by the whole DUP and its titular leader was an opinion poll showing significant loss of support to the even more rabidly militant Traditional Unionist Voice.  When the NI Director of Prosecutions recommended no prosecution of Sinn Fein members following their attendance en masse at an IRA leader’s funeral, and their apparent breach of Covid-19 restrictions, it proved to be the spark that lit the fire.

But this too, while causing understandable unionist anger, is largely a confection.  Unionists condemned the DPP decision but blamed the police when it was the police who had recommended prosecution.  Unionists have lighted upon liaison between the police and Sinn Fein before the funeral as a reason given by the DPP for likely inability to prosecute, but such liaison is not unusual.

The other reason given by the DPP was the Covid regulations themselves and their unfitness for the purpose of successful prosecution.  But it was the DUP (and Sinn Fein) who were responsible for drafting these regulations and if they could not be prosecuted it is yet another example of their incompetence.  Much of the consequences of Brexit and of the fall-out from the Bobby Storey funeral can therefore be laid at the door of the DUP. Far better for someone else to be the target of loyalist anger than themselves.

Arlene Foster called for the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to resign and refused to meet him, although then did so since she had previously met the loyalist paramilitaries; while the leader of the rival Ulster Unionist Party joined in calling for his resignation but could not explain in a radio interview what he had done wrong.  Meanwhile, the first loyalist riot in Belfast against this failure to prosecute lack of social distancing at the republican funeral took place in the same area in which a loyalist funeral in September had failed to do exactly the same thing.

In a sense none of this incoherence matters, reactionary causes don’t have to be coherent, they just have to be reactionary. The charge levied by unionism is that everyone else doesn’t understand them, doesn’t appreciate their anger, and doesn’t acknowledge that their ‘British identity’ is being undermined.  Since this amorphous charge is without any clear definition it becomes whatever unionism says it is. What is being claimed is that anything unionism doesn’t like is undemocratic, and the more it is upset the more undemocratic it is, and the less everyone else understands.

So what unionism wants is what it wants and deserves to get.  The Northern State was set up for them and it should fulfil its role of satisfying the majority whose existence it is for.  Since its position has historically been one of sectarian privilege and supremacy this should continue to be bolstered, and any attempt to undermine it is undemocratic and sectarian itself.  The nationalist demands for respect, tolerance and equality apply to unionism in equal measure, which means respect for its reactionary culture, tolerance of its sectarian practices and obeisance to its supremacist demands.  The current political arrangements in the North of Ireland are supposedly based on these values, to be shared by nationalists and unionists alike, making it obvious why they aren’t working.

We who live here however are expected to bow down before unionist demands and recognise the failure to offer unionism what is its due, so that we must sympathise with its turmoil and incoherence.  We are supposed to accept the democratic rights of bigots on the basis that there are a lot of them.  Fortunately, the world is a much bigger place and it is possible to imagine that the limits of political change are not defined by sectarian reactionaries, no matter how locally numerous they may be.

While forecasts of an imminent border poll and of a potential united Ireland are premature, the already existing growth of the non-unionist defining section of the population no longer allows unionism to constrain all political development and change.  Even the attempt to share out resources, privileges and rights along sectarian lines has proven unstable, although without yet the maturation of forces to make it fall over.

Socialists should acknowledge that the death of sectarianism, and the forces that defend it and promote it, will not be painless and will not be entirely peaceful.  In the next post I will look at renewed proposals to conciliate this sectarianism.  In the meantime we should not support compromise with sectarian reaction, if only on the grounds that it does not work.  What progress there has been even within Northern Ireland, has come from denying unionist demands and opposing its demonstrations and threats.  Socialism or any sort of democratic settlement will not come without the defeat of unionism, the more demoralised it is the easier and less violent its demise will be.

Forward to part 2

Brexit isn’t working

Brexit isn’t working, and isn’t going to work.  Sooner or later its false promises were going to be exposed and it didn’t take long.  The recession caused by the Government’s Covid-19 lockdown policy has only partially hidden its effects but sector specific issues and complaints from trade associations plus the emergence of official statistics are revealing the damage.

French customs recorded that exports and imports to the UK in January fell by 13 and 20 per cent compared to the average of the previous six months, while the volume of French trade to other countries increased.  German exports to the UK were down 30 per cent year on year, continuing the decline since the Brexit referendum, while Italy reported a 38 per cent drop in exports and 70 per cent drop in exports.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to the pandemic and its effect on the reduction of consumer demand, and some due to the build-up of inventory in anticipation of Brexit, but these are dramatic reductions.  Although not dramatic enough it seems.

It is now reported that the British Government is so Brexit unprepared that the introduction of checks required by it, postponed until April and July, would so damage trade that they could lead to shortages in supermarkets.  They will therefore be deferred further, with a “lighter touch” in controls on imports while work on border inspection posts continues, or in some cases only starts.

British exports to the EU however will continue to have the full suite of border checks applied, while the EU will be alert to the components imported into the UK that are incorporated into these exports but have been subject to rudimentary checks, if any.  Other countries might also wonder at British discrimination in favour of EU exports to the UK while theirs suffers the full panoply of inspections.  This temporary solution cannot therefore be a permanent one but has the potential to create more problems – the “fantastic” Brexit deal all over it might be said.

On this score, while unable to implement controls on its own borders, the ‘Minister for the Benefits of Brexit’ still celebrates the achievement of “a sovereign country in full control of our own destiny while keeping open and free trade between us”; claiming that while many said it could not be done, David Frost can declare “but we did it”. Except that what “we did” – what he was personally responsible for negotiating – he has now torn up three times in one week in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol (in relation to supermarkets, parcels and plants/machinery).

The greater integration of the Northern Ireland economy into the British, and the political divisions within it, have brought to the fore the irreducible problems of Brexit that in Britain have been addressed by reduction in trade, lorry parks, restriction of entry into Kent and postponement of the application of import controls.

These controls are undoubtedly onerous, with potentially separate approval documentation for hundreds of individual items in containers and lorries.  Many seem petty and pointless, at least to those doing the trading.  Before the controls were even implemented the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein had written to the EU Commission expressing concerns about the effects of these controls and asking for “flexibility”.

At the time I thought that Sinn Fein was complaining about something it had supported: the Brexit border had to go somewhere and it went down the Irish sea as it wanted.  For the DUP the complaint was consistent with their opposition to any separation from Britain, even if it wasn’t consistent with their support for Brexit.  But both were guilty of not accepting the seemingly empty statement of Theresa May that Brexit meant Brexit.

The difficulty of full implementation of the Brexit deal in relation to the North of Ireland was appreciated by the EU, which is why it was prepared to come to some agreement with the British Government if this could be separated from wider application.  This is what the EU side thought it was doing when perfidious Albion did what it does.

Both the EU and the British sought to leverage the situation in Ireland to their advantage and the latest spat is a continuation of that.  The breach of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is a provocation that obviously plays well for the Tories politically but it has no future and can only fool the gullible Brexit supporters so often – yes even some of them will eventually twig.

The EU will not be deterred from pursuing its existing course and if it does not hold all the cards, the ones held by the British entail paying a price for their being played.  The range of actions it can take will always involve a higher price being incurred by them than the EU.  The possible benefit to the British is that any eventual fudge needed to get the Irish Sea border arrangements to work can be claimed as a victory even if the EU is content to accept it.

For the EU, the difficulty is, as they say, one of trust.  How can it be confident that any attempt to adjust the working of the NI Protocol does not entail more than a fudge that it can live with?  It is even now pointing out that the British are not implementing the deal already agreed, including providing EU officials with the information they require to validate checks.

Given the nature of the existing TCA there is no great need for the EU to seek to ‘punish’ the British, it has enough mechanisms to address non-compliance.  Were the British Government to still seek to essentially violate and contravene the Protocol it would compel the EU and Irish Government to choose between a Brexit border at the Irish land border or make the entry and exit points in the Irish State that border.  The latter has been described by unionism as a win-win-win situation (for GB, NI and the Irish State) but it would entail all goods leaving the Irish State being subject to checks whether made in that EU member state or not, and it would mean acceptance into that state of any British product whether single market compliant or not; hardly a win for Dublin.

The Brexit border at the Irish border would be widely condemned as a breach of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and although it isn’t we have reached a stage where political reaction will very much go along the same lines as if it did.  Practically it would be difficult to enforce and politically it would be very damaging.  Were the GFA working smoothly it might be remotely possible to conceive that this just about might be accepted (at a stretch) but not under current and any conceivable future circumstances given the instability of the Stormont Assembly and Executive.

Sinn Fein would find it impossible to stay in a political arrangement which produced an obviously strengthened border.  The DUP and other unionists are now faced with the same choice, as ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson has explained – basically suck it up or bring down the Executive and Assembly, which is not even guaranteed to get rid of the Protocol anyway.  Comparisons have been made with unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s, but this opposition failed.

The DUP engineered the temporary suspension of Brexit checks at the ports through claiming that there were threats to staff that were not confirmed by the police.  Council staff from a DUP dominated council and from the DUP controlled Agriculture Department were briefly withdrawn prompting EU staff to follow suit.  The DUP has been unable to back up its claims of intimidation and the trade unions involved have denied claims that they had raised serious concerns.  The DUP Minister has also stopped work on building permanent border inspection posts (upon which work hasn’t started) but this too will not be a permanent obstacle to operation of the Protocol.

Loyalist politicians have engaged in their usual sabre-rattling, threatening to fight and engage in “guerrilla warfare” although this is always to be engaged in by someone else, in the first place by the loyalist paramilitaries.  They in turn have reminded everyone that they and the wider ‘unionist community’ are “angry” and are withdrawing support from the Good Friday Agreement.  Since this Agreement envisaged loyalist paramilitaries disappearing through bribery, and they have no intention of disappearing and see no need to do so when the bribes keep coming, what this ‘support’ amounts to rarely gets asked, just as it’s to lots of people’s advantage for it not to get answered.

The DUP came under criticism for meeting the paramilitaries’ umbrella group but the British Government, through the Northern Ireland Office, had already done so.  Normally when the British do something unionists don’t like these paramilitaries eventually get around to killing Catholics.  This time the immediate targets are as likely to be Protestant employees carrying out border checks as Catholics, and the British Government can be portrayed as at least partially on their side in seeking modification of the Protocol, if not yet its removal.  Their problem is the EU and the Agreement made with it.

DUP opposition has been motivated as much by falling polling numbers as the embarrassing results of its Brexit policy.  Its support was reported in February to have dropped to a 20-year low of 19 per cent, more than nine percentage points down on its vote share at the last Stormont election, which could see it being eclipsed as the biggest party by Sinn Fein.  The First Minister of Northern Ireland would then be a supporter of a United Ireland.  Most of the lost DUP voters have gravitated to the even more rabidly reactionary Traditional Unionist Voice, which according to the survey has increased its support by 10 per cent.

DUP leader Arlene Foster began the year by declaring the Protocol “the gateway of opportunity for the whole of the UK and for Northern Ireland” while now calling it “absolutely devastating.”  The DUP privately lobbied the British Government for a “Swiss-style” deal before their Economy Minister condemned it for requiring the UK to “slavishly” follow the EU.  The same Minister also complained about a £70m hole in her budget created by the loss of EU funding.

Unionist opposition is therefore incoherent and is partially muffled by the duplicitous policy of the British Government, which is attempting to delay the worst impacts of Brexit and probably harbours some vain hope it can modify the workings of the TCA permanently.  The EU will continue to implement the deal and to grind down non-compliance with the tools included in the Agreement.

In all this rolling calamity, that once again has exposed the disaster that is Brexit, we should finally not forget the role of the leader of the British Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, who voted for the TCA and now also owns its results.  However, rather than begin to separate himself from it and expose the disastrous effects of the Tories’ Brexit, he thinks he can ignore it and say nothing, even as it impacts the people for whom his three wise monkey policy is supposed to be for.  This, along with everything associated with Brexit, will not work.

Covid before cancer. Or maybe not.

The Northern Ireland Health minister was interviewed on the BBC here.  After first saying that he didn’t want anyone in the health service to be put in a position of making ethical decisions to deny essential medical treatment the interviewer told him that the Chief Executive of the Belfast Health Service Trust has said that they are already being made, and are life and death decisions.  Does Swann deny this or say he will investigate?  No.  He immediately and without hesitation attempts to justify something he said he didn’t want to happen, as if it hadn’t been happening.

He says that these decisions have to be made – “the ethical decision is could we turn a Covid patient away?  The answer is no.”  For other patients, “sorry your operation, your scope your diagnosis is going to have to be put off.”

When it is put to him that what he is saying is that a Covid patient won’t be turned away but that the result of this is that a cancer patient may die his answer is “yes, that’s as black and white as it is.”

So how is this ‘black and white’?  There has been no medical assessment provided that this blanket prioritisation is justified, in fact it is presented as if its justification is self-evident, an obvious ethical decision.  Except it’s not obvious and it is without justification, in both senses of that term – it has not been justified and any attempt to justify it would be wrong.

Swann says that we ‘cannot turn a Covid patient away’ but we already know that while over 50,000 people in the UK and over 3,000 in Ireland have died with Covid it is not at all clear how many of these have died of Covid.  So how can this particular disease be prioritised?

More people die of cancer than Covid-19.  There are around 165,000 deaths from cancer in the UK – that’s every year.  In 2018 over 4,000 people died of cancer in Northern Ireland.  In the Irish state over 9,000 die every year.

It cannot be because of the severity of the disease: cancer kills cancer patients because of their condition, while for most sufferers of Covid the disease is so mild they may not even know that they have had it.   If someone with Covid has a serious underlying condition making them vulnerable to death compared to a relatively healthy person with the same disease, what is it that makes the difference between survival and death?  Covid may be the proximate cause of death but Covid may not be the underlying condition without which death would not occur. If this is not considered an important distinction then presumably the health service and whole swathes of the economy will close down during the next flu season. A report from the Health Information Quality and Quality Authority shows that not all ‘Covid deaths’ should really be counted as such (see below).*

There is little that can be done to avoid many cancers; even those who don’t smoke, eat healthily and exercise fall prey to it.  Hospital treatment is necessary but can sometimes require less serious intervention if caught earlier, although this is precisely what is being deprioritised. Those most vulnerable to Covid on the other hand can take many of the measures we have all become accustomed to including social distancing etc.  The most vulnerable received shielding letters informing them of their vulnerability and measures they might want to take to limit exposure to infection.  Swann and his chief medical advisor have decided that these letters aren’t necessary this time but provided no real explanation why.  What has changed from the first lockdown?

Why is the protection of those most likely to suffer fatalities from Covid not the major focus of protection, support and prevention from these political leaders and bureaucrats?  Is it not really that, what both measures have in common – prioritisation of Covid patients within hospital and lack of focus on those most vulnerable – and what is being protected, as they have made clear repeatedly, is the NHS?   Protected from doing a job they know it will fail? And by their association, responsibility and accountability for it, protection of themselves?

The NHS in the North of Ireland is the worst in the UK.  There are, for example, more than 2,500 nursing vacancies.  As I have said before, Covid-19 may overwhelm the resources of the health service but is in itself not overwhelming.  It is only so because the NHS is already in crisis, and what we are asked to do is also to accept that we must collude in covering up this permanent crisis, including through regular speeches telling us how difficult it has been for the staff.

This message is all the more powerful, and successful, because it is largely true – many health service staff have been under enormous strain but this should not be an alibi for failure of the bureaucracy that is the NHS as an organisation.  As I have said before, the demand to protect the NHS, when it is supposed to be there to protect us, is an admission that this responsibility of the NHS will not be met.

The unjustified blanket prioritisation of Covid patients in hospital and the failure to issue shielding letters to the vulnerable are political decisions and have been successful because of a political campaign to justify lockdowns.  This has involved not only politicians but also senior health figures, who have given legitimacy to their decisions.  One such figure has been Gabriel Scally who has regularly intervened to argue that policies in the North and the South should be the same, as if two wrongs make a right.  He has stated that ‘the figures speak for themselves’ when it is well know that they don’t, and has stated that over 50,000 have died of the disease without recognition that dying with it is not the same as dying of it.  That such basic errors are repeated by a respected public health doctor illustrates the scope of the group think that has developed.

So egregious was the Health minister’s statement that the Department of Health put out a tweet entitled ‘Myth Buster’ with ‘myth number 1′ being “are Covid-19 patients being prioritised over other patients?” To which the answer was “No, they are not.  Patients are treated according to clinical priority.” Swann pitched in with “it is untrue and offensive for anyone to accuse frontline staff of prioritising one condition over another.”

Since it was Swann who said that prioritising was ‘black and white’ perhaps it is himself he is referring to as being offensive.  So who is right – the Department or the minister, and which version of the minister?

It would be difficult to deny that senior health staff would not be so stupid to as to admit such crass medical practice but easy to understand how Stormont politicians could grandstand with this level of idiocy and ineptitude.

The real problem is not that some politician has instructed hospital doctors to relegate individual cancer patients in order to prioritise Covid patients but that this is what has and will continue to happen by political decisions on allocation of resources that constrain individual medical assessments.  These individual decisions rely on higher level decisions on allocation of staff, wards and beds to deal with Covid that in the first wave witnessed empty Covid beds in the Nightingale hospital while other treatments were stopped.

Lockdown is a political decision involving an analysis not only of the disease but the potential impact of the response.  It is not a question of medical expertise determining the correct approach, even if one were naïve enough to believe that the medical profession is a paragon of virtue and wisdom.  The advocates of lockdown refer regularly to the number of cases, hospitalisation cases, numbers in ICU and deaths but rarely to the costs incurred by lockdown.  To do so would invite a critical debate they are ill prepared to have.  Swann’s mistake was to take soundbites to their logical conclusion and blurt it out.  It denotes the logic of the current approach but too crudely expresses its effects.

It is tempting to see in Swann’s first statement the chaos and breakdown of the functioning of the Stormont Executive that because of its reaction to the pandemic was seen for a while as an example of the political arrangements working.  No one is pretending they’re working now. However, the real political weakness lies not in the political primitiveness of Stormont but that such crass political interventions elicit no popular opposition. Unfortunately on this score looking for the left to offer one would be a complete waste of time, as we shall look at in the next post.

* HIQA: ‘The officially reported COVID-19 deaths may overestimate the true burden of excess mortality specifically caused by COVID-19. This may be due to the likely inclusion within official COVID-19 figures of people who were known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) at the time of death who were at or close to end-of–life independently of COVID-19 or whose cause of death may have been predominantly due to other factors.’

https://www.hiqa.ie/sites/default/files/2020-07/Analysis-of-excess-all-cause-mortality-in-Ireland-during-the-COVID-19-epidemic_0.pdf

 

 

Another lockdown – Why?

There are no easy solutions or answers.  So said Doctor Michael McBride, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, when announcing the return to lockdown.  There were hard and difficult choices, all with bad outcomes, but what was good for health was also good for the economy, poverty does kill people.

Just before this the Health Minister, Robin Swann, announced that the new restrictions were required in order to protect the NHS.  We could not turn away Covid patients he said – ‘who would suggest such a thing’ – suggesting instead that other patients be turned away, without being so dramatic is saying so of course.  McBride said that we needed to ‘help protect the non-Covid health service’, not long after one hundred planned operations in the Belfast Trust had been cancelled.

The announcement involved a presentation that included graphs of new cases, number of tests and numbers of hospital in-patients, but no graph on the number of deaths.  The Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency latest weekly report recorded that in the week ending 9 October the total number of deaths in Northern Ireland was 348, of which 89 were due to respiratory causes.  The number of deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, whether or not COVID-19 was the primary underlying cause of death, was reported as 11, which was just over 3 % of all deaths during the period.

To those who thought Covid was exaggerated Doctor McBride said that they needed to ‘wake up’ to the number of cases, number of in-patients and number of deaths.

Two questions were then asked repeatedly by the journalists invited to speak at the presentation.  What was the evidence that the new measures were required and what happens if it doesn’t work?

The question on evidence wasn’t answered; one journalist was referred to the minutes of the UK experts group SAGE and to unspecified peer reviewed articles.  No one asked whether the members of the Executive were limited to this, or were offered this as an answer if they had asked the question. ‘It worked before’ was one further response to the question.

To the second question – what happens if it doesn’t work? – the answer was that the public must follow the guidelines, so implicitly it’s your fault if it doesn’t.  Only near the end of the press conference did the Chief Scientific Advisor Ian Young state that people’s behaviour would have to change after the end of lockdown.  Elsewhere it was reported in one newspaper that the document informing the decision on a new lockdown had stated that further interventions will be required “early in 2021 at the latest.”

It would also seem that relaxation of restrictions at Christmas with the “likelihood of increased population mixing” in the run up to it is a significant consideration. (No, I don’t understand the rationale behind this either.)

The document apparently reports concern that Covid hospital admissions will rise to 450 to 600 at the peak; while the average number of NHS Acute services beds available in Northern Ireland was reported as 3,891 for 2019/20 and 3,882 in the previous year.  The average number of occupied beds was identical in both years at 3,239.  The forecast peak of Covid-19 patients of 600 would therefore occupy a forecasted maximum of 18.5% of the average number of occupied beds at the peak or 15.4% of available beds, before any plans for temporary expansion.

This includes all Acute beds and it would appear that the document has the aim of having a total of no more than 20% of general medical beds, around 320, being occupied by Covid patients.  Of course, it is more complicated than this and lots of uncertainty surrounds the ability to create additional capacity, and especially how much will actually be needed.  There is no explanation reported on the inconsistency between a target of 320 beds and expectation of up to 600 being required.

Given the lack of transparency, avoidance of answering questions, finger-pointing and general arrogant condescension of the Health Minister and experts it is no surprise they didn’t provide the level of information provided in a short newspaper article.  Non-sequiturs, plain contradiction and pontification are regarded as the currency that is required to get the population to do as it’s told.  And the population in the main accepts the argument, such as it is, and gets on with generally keeping to the rules except when it doesn’t suit them.

The latest Department of Health figures for 16 October show 3,711 beds available, 180 less than the average last year, with 211 taken up by Covid patients and 615 unoccupied.  The figures also show that of 104 ICU beds available 26 are taken up by Covid patients with 21 unoccupied.  No doubt the number of beds occupied will increase as it always does in the winter with the onset of influenza infections.

The effect of winter pressures is already being felt in Care Homes with 301 respiratory outbreaks being reported and 72 being classified as Covid related, with a further 10 suspected to be Covid.  Around three quarters of ICU and Care home outbreaks are therefore not Covid related.  The increased pressure on beds will also most likely reflect the same pattern.  If the NHS is overwhelmed by Covid it will not be because Covid in itself is overwhelming.

The figures for the growth of Covid outbreaks in Care Homes is a cause for concern while ‘protect the NHS’ may again be interpreted as a need to get elderly patients out of hospital  and into Care homes in order to free up beds – regardless of testing beforehand.  It was remarkable that in the press conference the appalling death toll in Care Homes was not referenced or any pledge made to protect their residents.

If the Health Minister and his experts therefore have an argument justifying their approach, it is not that Coivid-19 is an especially lethal threat but that the health service cannot cope with the additional work.  So the focus becomes one of reducing the work on non-Covid patients by creating Nightingale Hospitals that use existing facilities and existing staff and involve relatively little activity, while the capacity of the rest of the Service is massively reduced. The overall efficiency of the NHS therefore plummets just when it needs to increase.  And this is called ‘success’, and we are all asked to applaud it.

Rather than address this issue as the primary problem, which might raise the question how we got into this position, we have instead the enormous task of shutting the rest of society down (in so far as this is possible).  While those most vulnerable are, or can be, identified the message is given that everyone is more or less threatened, when this is not the case.  And because it’s not the case the population more and more ignores the rules when it suits, which allows the politicians and bureaucrats to sermonise and talk nonsense, such as the head of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland telling us that “success leads to complacency, complacency leads to failure.”  You might think that if a successful strategy leads to failure you’ve got the wrong strategy.

The approach of the politicians and health service bureaucracy has the comfortable effect (for them) of making the population the problem, requiring that it accept the shutting down of much of its normal everyday activity.  Much of the services provided by the NHS is also cut because the NHS is already, how shall we put it, not up to the job.  The politicians and bureaucracy responsible for this situation then demand of the population that it support and approve of this, garnering its sympathy because many of the staff who work in the NHS are now exhausted.

Which, brings us once again to the question of what is the right strategy.  While the North once gain goes into a level of lockdown the Southern Government is discussing going to Level 5, the most severe level of restrictions in its five-level menu.  The prospect now looms of repeated expensive lockdowns that lead only to a higher number of cases when they end.

In ‘The Irish Times’ someone took out a full-page advertisement opposing the current approach and supporting the Barrington Declaration.  This has led to objections and claims by some that they will no longer buy the paper.  The facts quoted in the advert are nevertheless true: that current life expectancy in Ireland is 81.5, the median age of death from Covid-19 is 83, a total of 20 people under 44 have died from Covid-19, and the record of Covid-19 deaths is one that includes those who died with Covid and not from it.

Controversy around the declaration has involved arguments that have little to do with what the Declaration says or what its argument is, but concentrate on the dubious political character of some of its supporters, its supposed nefarious objective of mass murder and criticism of what it does not say, as opposed to what it does.  A number of letters to ‘The Irish Times’ illustrate this.

It is claimed that the facts quoted are intended to mean that the deaths of older people are of less significance, although the point of the declaration is to make protection of the vulnerable the priority, while it has been the current strategy adopted that has demonstratively failed in this regard.

This fact is also construed to imply that these older people lived longer than they should have expected.  In any case it is life-expectancy at 83 that matters, not at birth, which is six years for men and eight for women.  But the first claim is without support from what the advertisement says and the second fact, while absolutely true, would require more information to demonstrate that at age 83 Covid-19 reduces the remaining life span of six or eight years from everyone who dies from it.

Another line of criticism is that sheltering will not work when there is widespread community transmission.  But we have widespread community transmission now after lockdown and there is no reason why measures that are supposed to socially isolate everyone cannot be strengthened for those most at risk.  From some on the left especially, the argument is simultaneously put that lockdowns should be more restrictive and would not work for a targeted minority.

The new lockdown in the North is an admission that the previous one failed.  That there is the expectation of another one of some sort later is further evidence.  That the population is treated as too ignorant to discuss these issues is a repeat on a massive scale of ‘trust me I’m a doctor.’  The modern notion of an ‘expert patient’ is gone.

If the failure of the current policy is unrecognised it is hard to have any confidence that the costs of the lockdown in future deaths will be acknowledged and accounted for.  The only thing that will save the current policy from ignominy is if its central claim is untrue – that we face a massive death toll if some sort of society-wide lockdown is not the major plank of State policy.

The significance of John Hume

One newspaper columnist described him as “without doubt the greatest Irish political leader since Charles Stewart Parnell.”

He was a “great hero and a true peace maker” according to Taoiseach Micheál Martin and a “visionary” according to Tony Blair.

His successor as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Colum Eastwood, described him as “20th century Ireland’s most significant and consequential political figure” and the Irish President praised him for having “transformed and remodelled politics in Ireland.”

Another columnist agreed that he be compared to the Liberator – Daniel O’Connell – of whom James Connolly said, “felt himself to be much more akin to the propertied class of England than to the working class of Ireland”, castigating him for him having “stood between the people of Ireland and the people of England, and so “prevented a junction which would be formidable enough to overturn any administration that could be formed”. . .  to prevent any international action of the democracies . .”  Hume was leader of a Party that was not a party of Labour and was not committed to social democracy in any meaningful sense.

The same writer found room in the column to also compare him to Parnell and describe him as “the Irish equivalent of Martin Luther King.”  He was famously awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1998 and also named a Papal Knight of St Gregory in 2012.

Words of appreciation and celebration of his life came from all quarters, from Bill Clinton to Boris Johnson and from Unionist leaders to Sinn Fein.  How could such a person have “transformed” politics in Ireland with such commendations?

A little vignette from his award of the Nobel peace prize provides a clue to the answer.  After the ceremony, in an Oslo hotel, he sang an Irish ballad – The Town I Loved so Well – with an official of the Ulster Unionist Party whose leader David Trimble had shared the prize.  As’ a gesture to the unionist community’ he sang The Sash, a sectarian Orange song.  Apparently an Irish ballad of no political consequence needed to be balanced by a sectarian hymn.

That night Norwegian children marched into the square in Oslo with lanterns lit singing the civil rights song – ‘We Shall Overcome’.  Hume couldn’t sing that, not just because his Unionist partners would not have accepted it, but because he hadn’t.  Partnership with sectarianism is not its overcoming.

But then Hume didn’t set out to transform Irish politics but to preserve it in aspic, to freeze without motion the division that existed.

His (‘single transferable’) speeches were often trite and platitudinous: “all conflict is about difference; whether the difference is race, religion, or nationality”.  “Difference is an accident of birth . . . The answer to difference is to respect it.”

He has been praised for bringing peace and for the Good Friday Agreement by his being central to the process.  He could speak both to the Provisionals and to the other parties – the British, Unionists and the Southern Government.  He also played a major role in involving Washington and Brussels, through the traditional Irish politician’s activity of lobbying and seeking favours.

So he was certainly at the centre of affairs, but being at the centre should not be confused with being the central player or being the central force in determining the outcome.  The eye of a hurricane is not where it matters.  It might for example be asked how his ‘single transferable speech’, repeated so often this rather vain man was even aware of its tedium, could suddenly appear to point to the solution when it had gotten nowhere for so long.

What brought the IRA to the table, what brought the British to the table and also the unionists was not the cogency of Hume’s pious calls for peace but the fact that the British state employed greater power and violence to defeat the republicans.  Hume, Southern politicians and US politicians all gave them the cover for their surrender.

The most reactionary commentators were angry that the Provos claimed some sort of victory but this didn’t bother the main players and certainly didn’t bother Hume. So great was Hume’s feat that he managed not only to cover for the republican’s defeat but turned them into a more powerful version of his own party, which didn’t seem to unduly upset him either.

There was no doubt some political skill involved in all of this, but given that everyone that signed up to the Good Friday Agreement wanted the defeat of the republican project, it is ridiculous to claim that he transformed Irish politics.  His political philosophy couldn’t possibly do anything like this.

The answer to difference when faced with sectarianism is not to respect it or to sing its songs.  The answer to violence is not to accept the policy of the most powerful, those able to inflict the greatest violence.  The answer to division is not reconciliation to division but to seek a unity that dissolves it.  Now that would be transformational; but that was never part of Hume’s project.  Even in the civil rights movement his objective was accommodation with the Unionist regime.

In this he failed, but if all political careers are said to end in failure then perhaps Hume can claim some success.  The Good Friday Agreement limps on, mired in corruption, incompetence and bullshit.  Sectarianism hasn’t been eradicated, simply given an institutional framework that it is hoped will keep it frozen.  This indeed is John Hume’s legacy. But better not to talk about it.

In Ireland, libel laws prevent journalists and others speaking ill of the living and it is an old Irish custom not to speak ill of the dead.  But your deeds outlive you and by these deeds and their legacy shall you be judged.

 

Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 5 – New Left Review interview 1969

Two years after the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and after the October demonstration in Derry, O’Neill’s reform package, the Burntollet march, and only a week before Terence O’Neill’s resignation, members of Peoples Democracy were interviewed by New Left Review (NLR) on 20 April 1969.  It is an invaluable record of what left wing leaders were thinking at the time.  As one participant, Cyril Toman, said “coming together for this interview is probably the first time people here have discussed problems in any depth for months.” Apparently, the interview was rather chaotic.

The interview is a contemporary record of the many problems discussed in these posts, expressing the confusion that existed among the participants.  As Bernadette Devlin says “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves.  I’d say that there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .” While Michael Farrell stated near the end of the interview that “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.”

The NLR interview asks some of these basic questions. One of the first is why socialists were raising reformist demands, and we have discussed this question in a previous post.  Eamonn McCann argued that the “transformation of Irish society necessary to implement these reforms is a revolution” and that therefore “we are definitely in a pre-revolutionary situation in the north . . . by supporting these demands in a militant manner, we are supporting class demands . . .“  How does this judgement stand the test of time?

In other posts it has been noted that class demands were viewed as separate from the demands for civil rights and that there was not enough emphasis on the former.  In this interview the participants appear to assume that socialists should attempt to lead the civil rights struggle although this, of course is not in itself an answer.

I have also expressed that, in my view, what existed at that time was not a ‘pre-revolutionary situation’, at least not as would refer to socialist revolution, and at most the grounds existed only for overthrow of the Unionist regime (not of British rule), which of course happened three years later.

While Michael Farrell argued for participation in the broad civil rights movement and the employment of civil rights demands to radicalise the Catholic working class, and to join these with agitation over ‘class’ issues that would have the potential to unite Protestant and Catholic workers; McCann states that “we have failed to get our message across.”  “The consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian” he says, and argued that “the reason we have failed to get our position across is that we have failed to fight any sort of political struggle within the Civil Rights movement.”

This proved to be a major difference between McCann and Farrell, who argued 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 worker is almost as much exploited as they are.  But we have failed to get across at all to the Protestant working class.”  The rebuttal by Farrell is therefore not an unqualified one.  Bernadette Devlin then argues that the real difficulty was “support from Catholic capitalists and bigots.”

The participants are asked to what extent they have leafleted Protestant areas, to which McCann argues that “all our failures spring from the lack of anything even resembling a revolutionary party.”  This remark seems not to be a statement of the much-repeated non-explanation offered by many small left wing organisations for the lack of success in what they view as revolutionary situations.  This is often a non-explanation, because such a party is the creation of the working class and if it has not been created this reflects not simply, or mainly, on socialists but in the under-developed class consciousness of the mass of workers.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the consciousness of workers was formed by sectarian division and support for nationalism and unionism.  Too often the objective determinants of class consciousness are under-estimated, ironically by Marxists, and lessons drawn from a different set of historical circumstances, often ones where there has obviously been socialist radicalisation of mass sections of the working class.  Lessons are then mechanically applied to circumstances where this is very definitely not the case.

Rather it seems to be a statement that independent intervention by socialists had not been coherent enough, that the civil rights movement would specifically not issue a leaflet and opposed issuing one.  For McCann the lack of organisation stemmed from being dissolved politically into the Civil Rights movement – “a crucial error and a grievous one.”

Cyril Toman argued that the original difference between themselves and “the bourgeois Civil Rights leaders was that we advocated action and they didn’t” but that they have now “begun to advocate action themselves.”  He then warns that such actions would propose “mindlessly militant actions across the province, and that instead of forming any socialist party (we) will have to chase all over the place trying to scrape up some meaningful debris from these actions.”

The interviewer poses the question whether socialists were performing a service for the Civil Rights Movement rather than vice versa, to which Toman replies that “yes, this is broadly true.”

Socialist activists across many struggles and campaigns have often been told that they must be the best builders of any campaign in order to win recruits to their ranks but the example of the Irish civil rights movement is that being the most militant fighter for a cause short of socialism, while good and often necessary, is not sufficient to advance the ultimate aim and does not necessarily entail the development of class consciousness in those participating in the struggle.

The struggle for civil rights did not engender a significant socialist movement and the struggle against imperialism that commenced following it didn’t either.  Asserting the primacy of ‘anti-imperialist’ demands as the first step in approaching struggles, sometimes involving support for purely nationalist demands and movements, has also not proved fruitful for socialists.

Undoubtedly the complexity of the situation facing socialists at this time created much confusion, but this was caused more by the restriction of the struggle to the North of Ireland, which hampered its development in a socialist direction.   The weakness of socialists was reflected in arguments over how sectarian the Catholic population was and how there was no movement in support from within the Protestant working class.

This led Farrell to speculate on dual power in Catholic areas versus pursuit of working class unity around reformist demands.  It might be said that at this time socialists in effect fought for the latter and then later for the former, and both failed.  This is not a question of blame but of recognition that socialists were subject to very unfavourable forces, that constrained them more than they shaped events.

McCann argued against any notion of ‘Catholic power’ which he argued existed in Catholic run councils, which although was a reasonable point, is not quite what Farrell speculated on. His alternative, in so far as he could express it in such an interview, was – giving the important example of housing – that socialists should demand nationalisation of the housing societies.

As expressed many times in this blog, nationalisation is not socialism, and in this case the nationalisation by the Unionist state, that socialists were fighting to destroy, could only mean nationalisation by the British state, whose power and rule they would later explicitly seek to remove.

The particular character of nationalisation in these circumstances makes clear the nature of such a demand: reliance on the capitalist state to do what socialism requires the workers to do themselves.

For McCann “we have failed to give a socialist perspective because we have failed to create any socialist organisation’, although he goes on to argue that “we cannot form a Bolshevik party overnight . . . we must try to set up some sort of radical socialist front between republicans and ourselves.”

As I have argued already, Irish republicanism is a form of militant nationalism and this proposal from McCann appears not to be consistent with drawing a clearer demarcation between socialists and the representatives of purely Catholic rights, which he also advocated.  Nor does it appear consistent with the emphasis on seeking support from Protestant workers.  The point here is not to damn McCann for inconsistency but to look at the arguments than recur again and again among Irish socialists.

So, in 1969 there was to develop a more or less open struggle within Irish republicanism about the way forward, between advocates of a more left-wing direction and more traditional republicans.  The traditionalists opposed dropping the customary policy of abstentionism in the Dial and continued to advocate the overwhelming primacy of armed action.

In this situation McCann could be said to be correct to seek some form of approach to unity with left members of the republican movement in order to advance socialist politics and organisation.  It is more than unfortunate that this leftward move was to take the form of Stalinism, which ironically represented an incomplete break with nationalism (see their descendants’ support for Brexit) and also ended up in a dogmatic adherence to limited reform of the North.

The problem with this approach was not that unity among the working class was to continue to be pursued, but that pursuit of this led more and more to capitulation to the unionist politics of the Protestant working class to which this unity was directed.  When practical political unity seemed only possible through ditching politics that would have made such unity worthwhile and progressive, and in the interest of the working class as a whole, the Official Republicans ditched the politics while failing to achieve any unity around even a mildly reformist programme.  If they have had some consolation, it is the poor one of seeing their Provisional rivals consummate the defeat of their alternative.

In answer to McCann, Farrell emphasised that “we have to explore the radical possibilities of the base that we do have, at this moment, among the working class, and that base is the Catholic section of the working class.” This too might seem to some degree obvious, as in having to start from where you are, but the question raised next in the interview was where that was – “you all seem to agree that the road to socialism in Ireland must pass via the Protestant working class.  Is that so?”

Toman said “I would answer that by saying bluntly, yes”.  Baxter qualifies this by saying “you cannot move in a socialist direction unless you have the support of some sections of the Protestant working class.  Otherwise they will start a sectarian struggle, and all the forces of Catholic reaction will swamp us.”

Farrell answered differently by arguing that “Northern Ireland is completely unviable economically . . . The unification of Ireland into a socialist republic is not only necessary for the creation of a viable economy, it must also be an immediate demand, because only the concept of a socialist republic can ever reconcile Protestant workers, who rightly have a very deep-seated fear of a Roman Catholic republic, to the ending of the border.”

While it is true that there has always appeared little interest for Protestant workers in supporting a capitalist united Ireland, the fact remains that for many, their reactionary sectarian politics means that they are in complete opposition to any concept of socialism as well.

Decades of elections have demonstrated this, and while the more recent defeats of the Catholic Church in the South of Ireland have undoubtedly lessened antipathy of many Protestants to the Irish State, this has revealed Unionism as perhaps the strongest standard-bearer of reactionary social ideas that generations of socialists have claimed was the real cause of Protestant workers opposition to a united Ireland.

How difficult winning Protestant support would be was made clear at the time in a document produced by Eamonn McCann that recounted the experience of taking the civil rights and socialist message to Protestant workers in the Fountain area of Derry.

McCann and Bernadette Devlin went into the Fountain and found themselves talking in front of a small audience in a kitchen, during which McCann explained that the civil rights line was one of “justice for all sections of the Community etc., and put it to them that the minority rule of Derry Corporation was indefensible.  How could they justify it?  A middle-aged woman told me immediately: “But if you Catholics were in control there would be no life for us here.  We would have to leave our homes and get out.”

McCann told them that this was ridiculous and that they had been brain-washed by the Unionist Party, but he gives them an alibi, that the movement had not made it clear what it was for, it had attacked unionism – the political philosophy accepted by most Protestants – but not any form of nationalism or any Catholic, which within the movement would be “howled down.”

As we have seen in the previous post, this was put forward as a real problem but it was not one that could be solved by any organisational change, but reflected the interests of the middle class leadership of the Derry Citizens Action Committee and the mass of Catholic workers unwillingness at that point to challenge it.  Inside or outside the DCAC it would still have to be challenged and it is at least arguable that socialists were in too much of a minority to stand outside making the argument.

Above all, this episode illustrates the central tragedy of the civil rights movement and its anti-sectarian objectives.  Faced with the argument that minority rule in Derry was unjust the Protestant woman explained that it was justified and that Catholics could not possibly be in control.  Equality was not acceptable.  This was the message that led the civil rights struggle to be submerged by sectarian division.

Concluded

Back to part 4

Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 4 – the failure of the Left

 

In looking back at the civil rights movement Eamonn McCann argued that “the left had a lot of influence in the early days of the civil rights movement. We frittered it away. No question of that. We frittered it away. We have to learn lessons from that and look back.”  In doing this on the fortieth anniversary of 1968 he wrote that “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight.”

McCann also noted the weakness of republicanism in Derry in the 1960s, which won less than 3,000 votes in a constituency with more than 25,000 Catholics in 1966, while in West Belfast IRA leader Billy McMillen came fourth out of four with just 6.3 per cent of the vote in 1964.

However, McCann also made the point that the radicals of around twenty to thirty in Derry were weak – a “relatively small, raggedy band of socialists”; “no sizeable socialist party was built from the experience, no distinctive socialist current emerged”. “What was needed . . . were clear ideas and coherent organisation, which wasn’t our strong suit.”

He complained that it was difficult to engage in political debate within the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, with anyone raising class politics denounced as splitting the all-class unity of the Committee.  He remarked on the radicals “blithe disregard for organisation and structure, because we had underestimated the depth of the sectarian division and the hold of nationalism on the Catholic community, because we had not been engaged in building a serious socialist party.”

McCann states that there was no clarification of differences, with “little serious effort to draw a line of demarcation with nationalism.’  This was especially needed in 1969 as the anger of youth flowed “through unimpeded among nationalist channels, eventually, into the IRA.”

He noted the way barricades were thrown across the entrance to Catholic areas, which he saw as confirming sectarian division, and the absence of the organised workers’ movement from the civil rights struggle.  In relation to the latter “we were too far out in front. [We] had lost contact with the main formation of the class and the only institution in the North which organised across the sectarian divide, the union movement, in which we might have grounded ourselves, or cleared ground for a new departure.”

McCann does record that in the 1969 Stormont election Peoples Democracy “was able to address mainly-Protestant workforces, emphasising the class basis of its hostility to unionism . . . but given the spontaneous nature of the socialists’ main organisational expression – the PD – and the absence of clear-cut ideas, the militancy came across as much as a reflection of gut opposition to the Northern state as of conscious adherence to socialist politics.”

He quotes Bernadette Devlin, after she won a by-election to become a Westminster MP –“there may not be 30,000 socialists in this constituency, but it has a socialist MP.”  As he also records, “events had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.  It was vital not to be left behind.  So no time to stop, analyse, synthesise.  In the blur of activity, we missed the moment.”

“This is not to say that if we had all been hardened revolutionaries with clear ideas, working patiently, efficiently to build a revolutionary socialist party, things would have worked out very differently”, acknowledging the historical weight of communal rather than class allegiance and the failure of the official labour movement.  His “realistic possibility” was one of “recruiting relatively rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth” and “entering 1969 not as a hubbub of socialist individuals but as a serious socialist organisation, capable of taking on and competing for popular support. . .” (all quotes from ‘Socialism and 1968’, in ‘Spirit of ’68’ edited Pauline McClenaghan)

If we review this argument, we can see that it isn’t altogether consistent.  It is argued that the left did not punch its weight but began the struggle as a “small, raggedy band”.  Before civil rights agitation took off the group was presented with a perspectives document that acknowledged their poor prospects, with the great mass of people seeing “religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”

Elsewhere he notes that although the left played a prominent role in organising marches; putting out leaflets and bulletins; running a radio station and in standing as candidates in  elections, that during their speeches “when the people were applauding [it] was not so much what we said but the way we said it.”  He notes correctly that prominent involvement in mass agitation did not mean that they had real political leadership or, as Bernadette Devlin put it – she was a socialist MP but not elected by socialist constituents.

McCann argues in his book ‘War and an Irish Town’ that mass influence is meaningless “unless one is in the process of forging a political instrument necessary to lead such agitation to victory . . .” and “we have learned that it is impossible to do that if one is not forearmed with a coherent class analysis of the situation and a clear programme based on it.”

Both of these are claims are true but his later assessment that things might not have worked out very differently had this been the case – and it can be argued that socialists at the time did argue vociferously for a socialist approach – nevertheless is also true.  These two requirements posed by McCann were not enough and their absence itself needs explanation, not simply in terms of the failures of individuals involved.

Perhaps they could have done better, as we can all have done better in our political careers, but this does not make our failure to do things as best they could be done the cause of wider failure by the movement or the class.  The point of this series of posts has been to understand what happened in order to do better now, but what happened was the outcome of forces much stronger than the left input into these events.

The left perspective document in 1968 quoted by McCann was not wrong to note the strength of sectarian division and the unionist and nationalist politics that divided workers within the North.  As I have noted a number of times, the short duration of the civil rights struggle, as well as its very uneven development, meant there was little time to challenge the historically developed political consciousness already imbued within Irish workers.

And this partially explains why republicanism, despite its obvious weakness in Belfast and Derry, was able to grow rapidly while the left did not.  Irish republicanism is not an alternative to nationalism but simply a variety of it, its most militant manifestation.  The transformation of consciousness required to move from support for the Nationalist Party to Republicanism is qualitatively different from one required to move from any sort of nationalism to socialism.  It should be recalled that, for many Catholic workers, this move to more militant nationalism was not made until republicans stopped being republican, in the traditional militant sense, and had given up armed struggle.

McCann notes that it was difficult to engage in debate within the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) because this would be denounced as political and divisive of Catholic unity.  He also argues that not enough was done to distinguish the socialist case from the nationalist one.  But there is ample evidence of socialists arguing the case for class politics through many of their interventions, and while their failure to build a significant socialist organisation was something that might otherwise have been achieved, this outcome was not primarily due to their failure to distinguish themselves as socialists.

Both McCann in Derry, Bernadette Devlin in her election campaign, and Peoples Democracy generally, were all loud in their opposition to green capitalism and their support for working class unity.  They failed because of the strength of its division, and while as Marxists this may be regrettable to have to admit, it is not at all incomprehensible. The difficulty of intervening in the DCAC that McCann noted did not make refusing to enter it an answer, but reflected the consciousness not only of the middle class leadership of the DCAC but of the Catholic workers it led, as McCann himself has noted.  The difficulty also remained outside the DCAC and most leftists joined it (although it would appear with little influence) because they feared isolation outside it.

The forces overwhelming the small and divided socialist movement, as McCann appears to recognise, were the events that “had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.”

A whirlwind of events can sometimes suggest more fundamental changes occurring than actually are, and that requires analysis, which McCann notes was missing.

But this is still true today, with this lesson still unlearned, with the left now bigger but no nearer building a genuine working class party, which requires not just a much bigger mass membership but a class conscious class from which to draw its ranks and a democratic culture that can provide the analysis with which it can take leadership.

Today the left in Ireland, and not not just Ireland by any means, is still too much impressed by action and not by the consciousness that drives it, and is in turn derived from it.  Honest and sober analysis still escapes it, with support for Brexit a particularly egregious example of a mistaken political programme.  Even when criticising what he sees as the failure of the left in the late sixties to build a serious socialist organisation he repeats the idea that what was needed was to recruit “rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth”, themselves the product of the “pell-mell, helter-skelter” of events that the left sought to keep up with.

As these lines are posted mass demonstrations and riots are taking place in the US following another racist killing by the police.  References have been made to this being an American ‘revolution’ when in fact we are a very long way from the American working class posing a socialist revolution,  Presenting the missing ingredient as a revolutionary party begs all the questions about the nature of the working class and its movement from which it alone can be created.

The erection of barricades to separate Catholic areas under attack from the RUC and loyalists, symbolising for McCann the obstacles to unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, is testament to the strength of sectarian division but does not make their erection mistaken.  Hence the tragedy.

His speculation that socialists might have grounded themselves in the trade union movement, but had become separated from it, does indeed argue correctly for an orientation by socialists to the working class as it is, and not to counterpose one’s own sectarian interests, organisation and programme to the workers own movement, but McCann himself notes the passivity of the official movement and its effective abstention from the civil rights campaign.  To reverse this would have required a fight inside the trade unions, against its leadership, and this could only have succeeded in a struggle in which socialists had won the support not only of many Catholic workers (from nationalism) but also Protestant workers (from unionism).

No one can claim that this could have been achieved in a few years; it is the work of many years and involves forces greater than exist within the six counties.  In the meantime it could not have been wrong to orient to those willing to campaign for democratic rights in order that they might be directed to such an orientation.

That there is still no settled view on what socialists should have done in 1968 – 69 is not surprising since this is largely fed by what socialists think we should be doing now.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 2