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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 9

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

Image result for bernadette devlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 8

Forward to part 10

The North of Ireland’s Anti-Brexit Election

Vote count at Titanic Belfast

No sooner is the general election over but the media hails the beginning of talks to resurrect the Assembly at Stormont and the power-sharing Executive.  The election has been hailed as a dramatic change yet the same old solution that cannot find a problem it can solve is put forward again.

We are expected to forget the rampant incompetence and corruption that characterised previous Stormont attempts.  However, it’s not quite everything changes but everything remains the same, because at the same time as we wake up to groundhog devolution day we are also informed that, just perhaps, real change is on its way – ‘United Ireland’ trended on Twitter.

In part this might appear as a result of Brexit getting done under Johnson, which will hasten a Scottish referendum that will lead to Scottish independence – shattering the ‘precious’ union upon which Irish Unionism depends. In part, it is because of the results of the election in Northern Ireland, which for the first time ever has elected more nationalist MPs to Westminster than Unionist – 9 to 8.

But caveats abound.  Johnson will not get Brexit done.  The UK may leave the EU at the end of January but the transition period means nothing will change – except losing its vote in the EU – until it ends at the end of the year, which is not long enough to determine the new arrangements between the UK and the EU.  These will be contentious despite the Irish Taoiseach warmly welcoming the result of the election as removing a worrying source of instability for the Irish state and its economy.  The value of Irish shares may have soared upon the result, especially those of the banks exposed to the British economy, and one right wing politician may have welcomed the election of another, but Brexit is by no means sorted and the North of Ireland (indeed Britain itself) has just voted against it.

If the Scottish Government elected by the people demands another separation referendum then it should have it, without this the national oppression that Scotland does not currently suffer from would become real.  But Brexit will involve the same, if not even greater problems, for any separate Scottish polity that puts itself outside its main economic partner, with a hard border between it and a Brexit England and Wales.  The austerity necessary for a separate Scotland would be made worse; it is not therefore a given that the Scottish people will change its mind.

In any case socialists should oppose the erection of borders, which divide workers, and oppose nationalism that frustrates class solidarity in favour of national allegiance.  Already nationalism has many Scottish workers voting for a Party that covers its right wing politics with nationalist rhetoric.  This has unfortunately led many on the left to support its cause, perhaps not so surprising since some have also capitulated to Brexit; populist nationalism has been on the march in a muted form for longer than Boris Johnson.

So the outcome of Brexit and Scotland are not clear, but if the Withdrawal Agreement continues in some form then a real difference will be created between the North of Ireland and Britain and real harmonisation between North and South.  A loyalist campaign that attempts to stymie this is not out of the question, but it is likely to be more isolated than previous mobilisations against Sunningdale in the 1970s and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s.  It will struggle to identify meaningful targets (which normally leads to its default disposition of attacking Catholics) and the British State lacks the incentive to indulge it.

The election results themselves have been taken to represent another step towards a United Ireland through a border poll, but again the situation is not so straightforward.  Sinn Fein, which shouts loudest for such a poll – calling for the Irish Government to create an All-Ireland Forum to advance the cause, performed badly, dropped by 6.7 percentage points.  It stood aside in a ‘Remain’ alliance in three seats, which partially explains the fall, but it also gained from the SDLP withdrawing in North Belfast, which returned a new Sinn Fein MP.  From three out of four MPs in Belfast being Unionist we now have three out of four Nationalists.

It dropped votes almost everywhere else, in West Belfast to People before Profit and spectacularly to the SDLP in Derry where its reverse was stunning.  On top of terrible results earlier this year in the local and European elections in the South, Sinn Fein has major problems.  The shine has long since come off it, it has little positive to say, and its abstentionist policy to Westminster has just cost it votes in the North.  It might have been assumed that as Irish unity appeared closer Sinn Fein would grow and benefit, but the opposite could well turn out to be the case.

It is one thing to stand out for the traditional aspiration of the majority of the Irish people when it appears you are alone in this, quite another to do anything positive to achieve it when it appears to become a realistic prospect, at least some time that isn’t the distant future.  The closer to Irish unity the less relevant appears a Party with nothing much to say about how it should be achieved or how it would actually entail a new progressive Ireland.  Previously, the SDLP suffered because it demanded the end of the IRA’s unpopular armed campaign but Sinn Fein gained from the peace process because republicans and not the SDLP could make it happen.  Sinn Fein will not make Irish unity happen, certainly not in any progressive manner.

In this election the SDLP came back from the dead to win two MPs with huge majorities in Derry and South Belfast.  Their opposition to Brexit was certainly a major factor in the latter, assisted by the fact that the sitting MP was from the DUP and Sinn Fein and the Green Party had stood aside.  Its vote however was much more than this assistance and represented more than mobilisation of a Catholic/Nationalist vote.  On the face of it this strengthens the push for restoration of Stormont since the SDLP is arguably its greatest supporter, although the sectarian carve up that is the lifeblood of Stormont faces challenges when there is competition not only between Orange and Green but also within each camp.

This is also the case in the Unionist camp where the threat to the DUP has come not from the Ulster Unionist Party, which has no real reason for existence, but from the Alliance Party – the biggest winner on the night. Like the footballer that is never off the subs bench while the team is crap, they get better the less they play, and the worse the team gets.  Alliance has benefited from appearing to stand above the sectarian incompetence and venality at Stormont but there is no indication that greater immersion into the devolution it also earnestly supports will not reveal its inadequacies as it has the others.  Its apparent opposition to the inevitable workings of Stormont will dissolve as it becomes an increasing part of it.

This however is not the major point to make about the rise of the Alliance Party.  It declares itself neither Orange nor Green although it has its origins within Unionism and has a pro-union policy.  This used to be much more obvious than it is now but has receded as the question has lost it sharpness following republican acceptance of the constitutional status-quo.  Its avowedly non-sectarian unionism has reflected its historic base inside the Protestant middle class, with an added smattering of aspiring middle class Catholics.  ‘Middle class’ here is used in the not very scientific sense to mean better paid workers and those with relatively higher standards of living.

It is now the third party in terms of votes with 17.4%, compared to the DUP with 31.6% and Sinn Fein with 23.6%, continuing its upwards trajectory following its success in getting the third MEP slot in this year’s European elections alongside one DUP and one Sinn Fein.

Much has been made of the overt sectarian arrangements at Stormont being predicated on balancing the Unionist/Protestant bloc against the Nationalist/Catholic one. This includes a veto wielding petition of concern available to each, which is blatantly undemocratic and discriminatory when a large number of representatives are defined simply as ’other’, which includes the Alliance Party.

This Alliance vote is a reflection of, but not identical to, increasing numbers of people who do not identify as unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic.  The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that one in two identify neither as unionist or nationalist, although this seemed to me to be rather too big, confirmed by some colleagues in my office who are a generation younger than me and closer perhaps to those who might be sloughing off old identities.

This growth of ‘others’ dovetails with the growth of the Catholic population, which in the last census in 2011 reported 41% of the population as Catholic and 42% Protestant, with a Catholic majority among younger age cohorts.  Sectarian division is also influenced by the decreasing gap between Protestant and Catholic social indicators such as unemployment, and the obvious breakdown of large scale employment segregation. So society is changing in the North of Ireland, which gives credence to the idea that the union with Britain, by being less certain, is thereby closer.

Research has been done on the composition of this neither Orange nor Green population but I won’t go into it here.  Suffice to say that the majority of ‘neithers’ are in favour of the union with Britain, although one survey has reported that one third of Alliance voters have said that Brexit makes them more favourable to Irish unity.

What this shows, as if it needed pointing out, is that ‘other’ is not in itself a positive identity.  I am an ‘other’ in these terms, but I would never define myself as such because I am a socialist and do not define my views as simply other than Irish nationalism or Irish unionism.  It is pretty clear that the majority of ‘others’ do not have a coherent separate political identity beyond rejection of two major nationalisms suffused with religious identity.  And this is positive – as far as it goes.

But more importantly, this survey finding about Alliance voters shows that while ‘others’ do not define themselves as unionist or nationalist, there is no third position on the national question.  There are worlds of difference on how it might be solved, and how it might lead to more or less progressive outcomes, but increasing rejection of the old ideologies without a positive alternative leaves the old choice standing.

This does not mean that the growth of those rejecting the unionist and nationalist identities, probably because of the behaviour of the political movements that lead them, does not have an influence on the political situation or on prospective developments.  It has been remarked that these people will be pivotal in any border poll and will not be motivated by traditional war cries.  The majority are motivated by progressive impulses if only cohered in very primitive form (primitive as in undeveloped).  The struggle for a united Ireland will have to offer more than recovery of the fourth green field.

This does not mean that some economistic agenda is the way forward, for in essence this is still a political question that requires a political stand.  It is rather that what will become more and more important is what sort of transformational project will this political struggle involve – what sort of united Ireland is being fought for?

The setback for the DUP in the election is a blow to the most sectarian and reactionary Party and must be welcomed. The vote for the SDLP and Alliance is to a significant degree a vote against Brexit and again should be welcomed.  The shift of some unionists away from the parties of traditional Unionism is also a weakening of the unionist programme and acts to isolate the most extreme loyalist reactionaries, which again should be welcomed.

That Brexit has not overcome the traditional sectarian/political divide is not unexpected – in fact it is entirely to be expected that the reactionary politics of Brexit should find its natural base in unionism.  That opposition to Brexit has weakened the unionist parties and unionism is thus inevitable and once again to be welcomed.  Even the small gains by People before Profit could be welcomed were it not for the fact that it continues to fail to recognise the reactionary character of its support for Brexit and demonstrates an inability to learn from mistakes and correct them, which is more serious for it than the question itself.

What appears as significant political changes in the election are therefore, from a socialist point of view, relatively small steps forward.  They do however reflect more significant changes below the surface that socialists should be concerned to understand.

Who will I vote for?

UK general elections mean something different in the North of Ireland, and have usually revolved around the national question, whether there should be a united Ireland.  Latterly, the division has been one of squabbling over the detritus of incompetence and corruption that is the life blood of the local devolved administration.

The scandalous nepotism and waste uncovered in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was the trigger for Sinn Fein to eventually pull the plug on its participation in the Executive, but only after continuing to hold onto the coat tails of the DUP proved untenable.  Now the republicans have made clear that the architect of the RHI scandal, DUP leader Arlene Foster, will not have to go after all.  Sinn Fein would be happy to have this more-than-usual unpopular Unionist leader back as First Minister.

So now, with only haggling over the spoils at issue, the question of importance might appear to be whether to endorse another round of the sectarian settlement.

This time however the main issue is the same as that in Britain, albeit with very different ramifications and with many thinking it’s the old one in disguise.  It’s a Brexit election in the North. Just as it is a Brexit election in Britain; and when it comes to deciding how I am going to vote it is this that will determine whether, and who, I will be voting for on Thursday.

Brexit was supported by the majority of Protestants and opposed by the vast majority of Catholics, with the former voting Leave 60 / 40 and the latter voting Remain 85 / 15.  In terms of declared political identity the difference were even more marked, with 66% of Unionists supporting Brexit and 88% of nationalists supporting Remain.  Among those who defined themselves as neither Unionist or Nationalist – as ‘Other’ – the support for Remain was 70%.

Unionist support for Brexit is perfectly consistent with identification with an imperial nationalism and illusions in the power of Britain in the world, upon which their political position has always primarily rested.  It is not consistent with the real position of Britain in the world, which has been rammed home – to unionism’s discomfort – by Boris Johnson’s acceptance of Northern Ireland being de facto within the EU customs union and single market.  The same ideological blindness infects the same core constituency of the DUP as the Tories in Britain, while the pretence that they got Brexit right has been maintained despite the DUP having been shafted by Johnson.

If this was to be the position of the North of Ireland upon UK exit then it would mark a significant political defeat for unionism and a step towards a united Ireland.  But one, or even two steps, do not take you to your destination; although it points to one possible direction by which an objectively progressive resolution of the national question can be implemented by reactionary forces – the joint efforts of English nationalism that has no interest in Ireland and the European Union and the Irish State, which are progressive only relative to the former.

Much has been made by Sinn Fein of a border poll and increased support for a united Ireland because of Brexit but there is still no majority for a united Ireland and for that majority to arise the nationalist population has to grow significantly and/or the benefits of a united Ireland have to be demonstrated.  A border poll is not in itself an answer.

It is ironic that People before Profit (PbP) trumpet their differences with Sinn Fein but present a border poll in exactly the same way; while adding the vacuous call for a socialist Ireland, which means nothing outside of a wider programme that has to be internationalist to be socialist.

They have complained of Sinn Fein dirty tricks in putting up posters beside PbP ones stating that ‘People before Profit – Still Support Brexit’, which must be the first time a party has condemned a rival for putting up posters declaring its own policy.

Their complaint of course is that people will interpret this as support for the current Brexit, but unfortunately for them and for the rest of us a reactionary Brexit is the only one possible.  The current Tory Brexit was the only one proposed in the referendum – that they voted for – and the only one put forward now for implementation.  And it is still the case that People before Profit support leaving the EU – Brexit – and still see it as progressive.

So, if they now complain it is only because they know that the only Brexit in town is regarded by everyone as reactionary, and People before Profit condemns itself by not accepting that it is making a gross mistake by continuing to support this reactionary step backwards.

PbP complains that Sinn Fein allowed benefit cuts by agreeing that the decision on welfare should be handed back to the Tory Government in Westminster.  But this is exactly what it is doing by supporting Brexit and handing the power to inflict much greater damage on working people – throughout the UK – to an even more rapacious Tory administration that is salivating over the deregulated dystopia that is planned after Brexit.  There is no Brexit on earth that will not lead to cuts in welfare and attacks on pay that PbP claim they alone will fight.  The greater dependence on the State sector for employment in Northern Ireland will mean a greater impact from the cuts to this expenditure, which will be considered perfectly fine by a project sailing on the winds of English nationalism.

Whatever the benefits and drawbacks of the precise arrangements for the North under Brexit, it is not designed to further the interest of Irish workers: this much must be obvious even to PbP.  The same right-wing views associated with Brexit in Britain are reflected also in the North of Ireland, with those supporting Brexit more likely to have reactionary views on immigration, on the marriage rights of same-sex couples, and support for the most sectarian political parties.

A Brexit that will leave the North largely within the EU trading arrangements will be less damaging than a hard border within the island, but it is obvious that this is a more realistic way to prevent a hard border than a Brexit with PbP protests at how unfair it all is; and that no Brexit at all is the best solution of all.

Brexit has also been opposed because it is claimed that it will raise sectarian tensions, which means that it will upset many loyalists and may lead it their violent mobilisation.  To argue this however is to accept the Unionist veto on progressive change that has made the Northern State the political slum that it is and has always been.  There is no step forward that will not excite the opposition of loyalism.  The Protestant support for Remain should instead be viewed as an objective acceptance that Unionism does not represent their long-term interest; this progressive step should be supported rather than seek to pander to the most reactionary sections of the Protestant population.

So, if Brexit is the issue, who shall I vote for?

A couple of months ago I bumped into a Sinn Fein supporter I have known for years who after a couple of minutes launched into a defence of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy in relation to Westminster.  We hadn’t discussed politics up to then and I just listened to his poor apologetics for an obviously indefensible position. It has been widely criticised in Ireland and his defensiveness should not have been a surprise.  For a movement that was so wedded to theological shibboleths, from the IRA army council being the legitimate government of Ireland; to abstention from the Dail and Stormont; to not recognising the courts even though it meant longer sentences; to the sanctity of armed struggle; it’s as if one totem of their republican credentials must be retained to convince themselves they are still the republicans of old.

But this is a long way of saying there’s no point opposing Brexit by voting Sinn Fein because Sinn Fein will not be voting against it.  In the event of a Westminster hung parliament the SF position should be strung up with it.

Since Sinn Fein have stood down in my constituency, I don’t have to bother with considering these arguments.  Sinn Fein have withdrawn their candidate while the SDLP have withdrawn theirs from North Belfast to give Sinn Fein an uncontested Nationalist in that constituency.  The ‘Remain’ alliance that has justified these actions can be denounced as purely sectarian solidarity, except that the Green Party has also stood aside and the SDLP candidate has put opposing Brexit to the fore.

The Alliance Party has not stood aside and is also anti-Brexit, and of course also claims to be non-sectarian.  It is also however a unionist party in all but name and has rightly been described as the party of the British Government’s Northern Ireland Office.  The sitting MP is from the DUP and of course a supporter of Brexit.

So, in this election I will be voting against Brexit by voting for the Stoop Down Low Party, as it was sometimes disparagingly called (a long time ago).  And I never thought I would do that.

It is necessary to vote against Brexit and necessary to have that vote carried forward into Westminster.  It is justified also in order to weaken, however slightly, the most reactionary and sectarian major party in the North, the one that has thrown its weight behind Brexit and all the reactionary politics that that project encompasses.

 

 

 

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ part 8 – provocative civil rights

The December 1968 speech by Terence O’Neill was a landmark in unfolding events, but unfortunately there were many such landmarks.  Many critics of the militancy of some in the civil rights movement have since been too keen to blame the subsequent descent into the Troubles on their refusal to trust the bona fides of the Unionist regime, but without detaining themselves long to examine the paucity of the reforms on offer.

At the time the speech had a powerful impact on public opinion, and many were impressed at his sacking of the hard-line Minister of Home Affairs, Bill Craig.  The leadership of NICRA and the ‘moderate’ leaders of the Citizens’ Action Committee in Derry all accepted the request to call off their demonstrations and suspend their protests.

Peoples Democracy decided that the promises of the Unionist Government would be tested.  The speech by O’Neill had solved nothing and even the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson noted that universal franchise – ‘one man, one vote’ – had not been granted.  A march starting on 1 January 1969 from Belfast to Derry modelled on the Selma-Montgomery march in Alabama three years before, which exposed racist violence and forced reform, would test the Unionist Government’s intentions.

The intentions of unionist hard-liners became apparent very quickly.  The march was subject to repeated harassment and struggled to take its intended course with repeated blockages and police diversions that seemed intended to facilitate loyalist attacks.  On the fourth day the RUC led the demonstration into an ambush at Burntollet in which hundreds of loyalists throwing stones and bottles attacked with clubs and iron bars.  Some RUC men joined in the attack while dozens of the attackers were later exposed as off-duty members of the B Special constabulary, especially notorious for its bigotry.  No attempt was made to arrest the attackers and later both police and assailants were to be found socialising together. The march regrouped and faced further attack but eventually made its way into Derry. City

PD had organised the march to test the Unionist Government and its State but did not anticipate the level of violent reaction it suffered; encapsulating one great problem for the whole civil rights struggle.  In the words of PD leader Michael Farrell, “either the government would face up to the extreme right . . . and protect the march . . . or it would be exposed as impotent in the face of sectarian thuggery, and Westminster would be forced to intervene.”

The problem with this was that the Unionist Government was not concerned with sectarian thuggery in itself but only with its possible consequences, especially intervention by Westminster, although Westminster did not want to intervene.  The result was that sectarian thuggery took on, and had to take on, massive proportions before Westminster did eventually intervene, and then not primarily to stop the sectarian thugs.

Because this was not understood more appropriate preparations to defend against sectarian attacks were not taken and nor was the character of the later Westminster intervention understood, or the much greater level of violence it eventually entailed.

The idea of ‘provocation’ was not only the accusation of unionism but was also part of the calculation of some radical civil rights leaders. One marcher stated that “Our function in marching . . . was to break the truce, to relaunch the civil rights movement as a mass movement, and to show the people that O’Neill was, in fact, offering them nothing. We knew that we wouldn’t finish the march without getting molested, and we were accused of looking for trouble. What we really wanted to do was pull the carpet off the floor to show the dirt that was under it.”

The PD march had been opposed by the leadership of NICRA and the Derry Citizens Action Committee, while the most prominent organiser, Michael Farrell, said he knew what he was doing – “a lot of the route was through my home area of South Derry so I knew . . . the likely reaction.”

One author of the history of the civil rights movement was not so sure:

“Farrell had not, however, anticipated the full extent of the violence. He had thought that the march would force the Government either to confront the loyalists or to drop its pretensions about reform, but he had not been clear about the further consequences of forcing the Government to resist sections of its own supporters. The loyalists might back down, or the Government might fall, forcing the British government to intervene. The purpose of the march was to upset the status quo.” (Bob Purdie, ‘Politics in the Streets’)

When the Nationalist Party had tried to march in Derry city centre in 1952, for example, the march had been banned and then broken up violently by an RUC baton charge. One consequence was a great reluctance to defy these bans and the next to do so in Derry was the civil rights march in October 1968.

As Eamonn McCann said, “the strategy was to provoke the police into overreaction”, and as he also put it, “one certain way to ensure a head-on clash with the authorities was to organise a non-Unionist march through the city centre.”  “Our conscious, if unspoken, strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off mass reaction against the authorities.” (War and an Irish Town p 62.)  Of October 1968 he said – “we had set out to make the police over-react.  But we hadn’t expected the animal brutality of the RUC.”

But if opponents of this approach have accused these radicals of provocation, they have been less keen to interrogate just exactly what justification had those who were provoked?

Given the moderation of the demands there is scant excuse for a violent reaction and the assumption of a strategy determinedly ‘non-provocative’ would appear to be that if you did next to nothing, next to nothing would be done to you.  But O’Neill’s promised reforms made it clear that the Unionist Government had no intention of granting equal citizenship rights to the Catholic minority without the strongest of pressure.  If only because pressure was being applied by hard-line loyalists on the other side, whose violence is so part of their nature that it is taken for granted by critics of the civil rights movement.  The imperative to non-provocation for these liberals thus always lies with the disadvantaged.

This does not imply that the moral righteousness of the oppressed means that no consideration need be given to the legitimacy or efficacy of methods of struggle employed.  It means that much more consideration needs to be given when you are in a position of weakness and you cannot simply declare a right to fight back by any means without accounting for its effects and its consequences.  There is no ‘right’ for Marxists to glorious or inglorious failure with its consequent casualties.

So, to demand civil rights meant challenging the sectarian parameters of society, which necessarily meant that the sectarian forces which defended these parameters were then ‘provoked’ into repressing demands for equality.  This, for example included demonstrating outside what was considered ‘your area’, which was then taken by the state as valid reason to enforce its sectarian rules by force.

For the defenders of sectarian supremacy any challenge to their sectarian rights was by its nature sectarian itself, simply by virtue of challenging the particular sectarian privileges of some Protestants.  In this view there was no such thing as non-sectarianism or anti-sectarianism because all attempts to redress the imbalance of rights necessarily impacted unequally on Protestants. In this view the inequality that existed was either denied or justified.  No claims to equality had any purchase on those with these views.  The alternative was to take a neutral view between these for and those opposed to sectarian practices, on the usually unspoken grounds that the latter were too powerful and capable, of violence.

The state defended itself not so much by arguing against the civil rights demands themselves as against those who were raising them, by arguing that the civil rights campaign involved republicans and was a republican front; in effect stating that even mild demands for change were subversive.

We have seen that no one outside of the Catholic population itself was able to build any substantial opposition to the State’s sectarian practices, so it had to come from within that population, not just logically but inevitably.  When the demands were raised by ‘moderate’ middle class figures they were ignored.  When they were raised by trade unions and the Northern Ireland Labour Party they were ignored.  When they were raised on the streets it was inevitable that leftists and republicans would be involved, at which point they were no longer ignored but attacked.

The involvement of the Communist Party in NICRA meant unionism also associated it and civil rights with Communism, which had a particular connotation at this time because 1968 was also the year the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.  The development of NICRA however showed that neither the Communist Party nor republicans had control of the movement.

NICRA had rejected the charge that the 5 October march in Derry was provocative and it was pointed out later that there were no clashes between demonstrators and Protestant residents but only between demonstrators and the police.  As a defence however this could not be sustained when loyalists increasingly confronted civil rights demonstrations, as they had done from the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon. This was also a consideration for those opposed to the PD march but no one in the civil rights movement could afford to allow counter-demonstrations by the most bigoted Paisley supporters or attacks by off-duty police and Special Constabulary to veto their right to protest and demand for civil rights.

Either these attacks would lead to passivity and reliance on the good grace of the Unionist Government to introduce reforms, or the campaign would continue until they had been implemented, or not.

This at least seemed the logical choice, but as has been said before in this blog, political struggle is not a question of logic.  Political struggle gives rise to (or arises from) an opposition and this changes the choices that can be made.

It is clear that the civil rights movement did not foresee the vicious loyalist reaction that dragged the opposition to the sectarianism of the state into the Troubles, but they are not to be ‘blamed’ for the Troubles on that account.  Rather, if blame is to be apportioned, it is to those who violently opposed civil rights and who escalated their violent opposition as they saw the sectarian rights they were defending threatened.

Back to part 7

Forward to part 9

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 7 – civil rights takes centre stage

Image result for derry civil rights movement 1968

Television pictures of the civil rights demonstration in Derry on 5 October 1968 being attacked by police sparked anger across the North and South of Ireland and shock in Britain and further afield.  In Belfast Queens University students marched from the University into the city centre and set up a new organisation – Peoples Democracy (PD) – when they returned.

On the right of the spectrum, the Nationalist Party withdrew from its position as official opposition at Stormont and endorsed a policy of ‘non-violent civil disobedience’ and the civil rights agenda.   This did nothing to change the leadership of the civil rights movement while the running was made elsewhere as the next day PD held another demonstration to the City Hall in Belfast.  On 21 October the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared that there must be reforms while the Taoiseach Jack Lynch visited London and protested against the events in Derry.  Just over a week later Wilson met the leadership of the Unionist Government and demanded the introduction of reforms.

In Derry the movement that had played such a big role in precipitating the crisis was rather easily taken out of the control of left radicals by the local Catholic middle class, intent on instilling its discipline.  Thus was created the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee (DCAC) which most radicals joined, afraid of marginalisation if they didn’t, except for Eamonn McCann who walked out of the launch meeting in protest.  The presence of the majority of radicals however made no appreciable difference to the course of action taken by the DCAC.  The weakness and lack of perspectives that had been discussed by these radicals when they existed in separate loose organisation and alliance was made abundantly clear inside the Citizens Action Committee.

The DCAC brought more planning and organisation to protests, which they began organising, such as the mass sit-down in Guildhall Square later in October.  It was bigger than the 5 October demonstration, with between four and five thousand taking part, demanding a crash housing programme and points system for housing allocation. So, while denying it had any political purpose, even the new middle class leaders felt the need to extend the demands of the movement and continue its activity on the streets.

On the other hand the DCAC, run by local businessmen, did not mark itself out as centrally concerned with civil rights and hardly had much to do with NICRA at all, which in itself is symptomatic of both the limited nature of NICRA and the localised and confined perspective of leading figures in the Catholic middle class. There appeared to be no movement to compel the creation of a united and democratic civil rights campaign across the North or, on the other hand, a united left component of it, composed of the Derry radicals, PD in Belfast and others.  Instead, histories of the period note that the civil rights association and the wider civil rights movement were separate.  As so often, especially on the left, the need to prioritise activity in order to take advantage of a particular conjuncture of circumstances affected everyone concerned.

Another demonstration, defying a Government ban that the RUC could not enforce, was held on 16 November and was much larger that the October demonstration, with at least 15,000 taking part.  Two days later 400 dockworkers left work and marched and 1,000 shirt factory women also left work to demonstrate in the city centre as court proceedings arising from the first march started.  Later that night Protestant youths attacked the women as the evening shift left the factory, with clashes continuing the following day.

Two days later disagreement developed over a proposed demonstration on unemployment, which the DCAC leadership argued successfully against.  As Eamonn McCann later acknowledged, this approach “perfectly matched the mood of the Catholic masses” – “reasonable, respectable, righteous, solid, non-violent and determined.  The DCAC “did not challenge the consciousness of the Catholic masses.  It updated the expression of it, injected new life into it and made it relevant to a changed situation.”  As MCann also observed, it contrived to contain within itself those who wanted to destroy this consciousness.

Nevertheless, the repercussions of the Derry demonstration and the publicity it generated were carried forward – by the actions of the DCAC in leading street action and by the spontaneous demonstrations of workers. Coupled with the defection of the Nationalist Party and the radicalisation elsewhere, including demonstrations in Belfast, it contributed to growing pressure on the Unionist regime to make some concessions. On 22 November the Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill announced a package of reforms.

They included a review of local government that would deal with ‘one man one vote’ in two years’ time, the abolition of the Special Powers Act as soon as practically possible, encouragement to local authorities to use a merit-based points system for allocating public housing (that they could make up themselves), an ombudsman to deal with complaints and a development commission to replace Londonderry Corporation.

One obvious problem with the reforms was that the Unionist Party leadership remained in control of the government with the only significant threat to its parliamentary majority being the threat from hard-right unionists. This dynamic ensured that the reforms were minimised for fear of losing this right-wing support and would continue got come under pressure. For example, the points system for allocating public housing was left for the local authorities to devise themselves.  The abolition of the Special Powers Act was to be as soon ‘as practically possible’, while the then Minister of Home Affairs suggested that this might not be for some time.

Most importantly, the package did not end the restricted franchise in local government and included no measures that would actually guarantee the end of unionist control of districts where nationalists were in a majority, except for Derry where a development commission was to take charge. All of the important levers of power remained in the hands of the Unionist Party. ‘One man, one vote’, which had come to crystallise the civil rights movement’s concerns had not been conceded, demonstrating that the Unionist Party couldn’t concede it because to do so threatened a split.

Unionist backbenchers were opposed to the reforms, while the cabinet had carried out analysis that showed that without the property franchise Catholics would make up a majority of the electorate in Fermanagh and Tyrone whilst threatening the Unionist Party position elsewhere.

The rioting that had followed the Derry October demonstration had given rise to concerns about future possible sectarian clashes, although it had been pointed out by ciivil rights protestors that it was the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that had attacked the demonstrators and not local Protestants. Nevertheless, a small civil rights march in November from Strabane to Derry had been attacked by loyalists, and at the end of the month supporters of Ian Paisley occupied the location of a civil rights march in Armagh town centre, armed with cudgels and sticks, preventing the legal civil rights march from taking its intended route.  The denial on full civil rights so evident in the limited concessions offered in O’Neill’s reform package was matched on the streets by the RUC, which stood by while loyalists prevented a legal civil rights demonstration.

It was clear rather rapidly that the reforms proposed were not enough, although they still led to a clash inside the Unionist Government, with the hard-line Home Secretary Bill Craig sacked after his criticism of a televised speech by O’Neill.   This had been designed to show the Unionist Government’s commitment to reform – “your voice has been heard and clearly heard .  Your duty now is to play your part in taking the heat out of the situation.”

The message was that the Unionist Government had played its part and now the civil rights movement was to play its – by calling an end to the demonstrations that caused so much violence and division.    Many Catholics were impressed that the previously aloof Unionist Prime Minister spoke directly to them, even if he spoke on behalf of the Protestant middle class that feared looming violence.  The unionist ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper ran a campaign in support of O’Neil with tens of thousands of its coupons backing himl being returned by its readers.

His ‘Cross roads’ speech in December 1968 warned of the situation being on “the brink of chaos”, while he appealed for the civil rights movement to call off its demonstrations, pledging that there would be no watering down of the promised changes.  NICRA and the DCAC acquiesced and called a truce on marches while nationalist newspapers welcomed the defeat of unionist hardliners and the reforms that were on their way, hoping that this promised steady progress in the future.

O’Neill had certainly changed the style and rhetoric of Unionist rule somewhat and was, as one author put it, “strong on gestures and bold statements”,  but there were very restricted limits to any reforming intentions and those that existed should be seen as part of attempts to modernise and rejuvenate industry and the economy more generally.  Unionist reformism, such as it was, assumed that the benefits of British welfarism and economic progress, plus funding for Catholic Church institutions, would nullify any demand for equality.  For O’Neill, the ‘Scotch-Irish’ Protestants of the North of Ireland were as different from the rest of the Irish people as ‘chalk from cheese’.

His premiership demonstrated no evidence that the anti-Catholic character of the Unionist Party was changing or that the Orange Order was not still an important part of it.  He wanted North-South relations to improve but there were no measures to prevent or combat discrimination in Northern Ireland.  He condemned the October civil rights march in Derry as ‘an act of pure provocation’ and supported the police despite its violent attack on it.

Undoubtedly he was limited in what he could do by the right wing of his party, which was rather rapidly and easily to become predominant, but he thought civil rights was only of interest to a minority of Catholics who he believed were more interested in houses, jobs and public services plus funding for their own sectarian institutions.

O’Neill did not so much advance a non-sectarian agenda, and pave the way for measures to reduce sectarianism, as undercut the growing but fragile movements that did and which threatened Unionist hegemony and that might have heralded a real, even if limited, advance on civil rights – the NILP in particular.  His liberal image had also made it easier to resist pressure from Westminster for some reform by the Unionist regime, which would have been harder to justify by other hard-line unionist leaders.  In this regard however, even the threats from the British Government to start interfering were not meant to speed up reforms but to avert intervention.

O’Neill sought Catholic quiescence to a unionist state, as his reaction to the 5 October civil rights demonstration showed.  Rather than criticise or apologise for the violence of the RUC he threatened to mobilise the even more sectarian and ill-disciplined B-Special Constabulary.

The limited character of the November reform package was clear, while his call for an end to civil rights demonstrations was precisely the objective of hard-line unionists, and also of the Paisley counter-demonstrations that had generated much of the violence.  Given these circumstances it was not unreasonable or even unexpected that this commitment to reform, and resistance to the right wing inside and outside the Unionist Party, would be tested.

It was only a question of time, although even today some controversy and condemnation attends to the Peoples Democracy march in January 1969 that did the testing.

Back to part 6

Forward to part 8

From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ 6 – the Civil Rights Association

One hundred delegates attended the founding conference of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) on 9 April 1967, electing a thirteen person steering committee made up of trade unionists, the Campaign for Social Justice, Communist Party of Northern Ireland, republicans, and the Ulster Liberal Party.  One Young Unionist was also co-opted later.  Its constitution was based on that of the British National Council Civil Liberties, now called Liberty.

The NICRA constitution of 1967 made no explicit mention of either voting rights or discrimination and its five objectives were stated in rather general terms:

(1) To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens

(2) To protect the rights of the individual

(3) To highlight all possible abuses of power.

(4) To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association

(5) To inform the public of their lawful rights.

These objectives avoided the direct issues of sectarian discrimination in housing and employment, the issue of ‘one man, one vote’ and the particular repression enshrined in the Special Powers Act.

The demands, coupled with the inspiration for the constitution, indicated that the new body, like organisations reviewed in the previous post, did not intend to be a campaigning organisation that would mobilise on the streets but a representative one, dealing with individual cases and focusing on defence of existing rights.

With this conception of its role it was destined for the same ineffectiveness and disappointment as the CSJ, and the resolutions and meetings held previously by the NILP and trade unions.  As one prominent participant, Fred Heatley put it – “the first eighteen months was a time of frustration.”  Letters to Stormont were dismissed after delay and two representatives were turfed out of a police station after trying to make representations, “but the most annoying aspect of the early period was the lack of real interest shown by our first council members – at times we couldn’t muster up the required six members for a quorum at the monthly meetings.”  A body that couldn’t get its leaders to a monthly meeting was hardly going to get masses of people onto the streets.

Some changes to the membership the next year appeared to make no difference.  What did make a difference  was a minimal responsiveness to what was happening outside and its effective co-option by these more powerful forces that were stirring.  It was not NICRA that propelled civil rights to the top of the political agenda but the stirring of political forces that pushed NICRA to the fore, against the wishes of some of its earliest leaders.

The Unionist Government’s proscription of the Republican Clubs, the political organisation of republicans in the North, and a ban on their demonstrations, clearly came within the ambit of NICRA’s declared objectives.  So one of its first public actions was to oppose proscription, with Betty Sinclair of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland attempting to avoid being seen to endorse the politics of the republicans by claiming that the Unionist proscription could threaten the Orange Order as well!

The banning of marches and the defiance of such bans could not be seen as incidental to the campaign for civil rights. Challenging the restrictions on protest and the use of mass mobilisation to exert political pressure was one of the key goals of many of those within the movement, explicitly stated in the NICRA aim of ‘freedom of speech, assembly and association’. It was part of the logic of civil rights and its early prominence was anticipation of the explosive issue it was quickly to become.

It was the one NICRA objective that spelled out its requirements in quite specific terms – for ‘freedom of speech, assembly and association’. While there is a tendency sometimes to pass quickly over this, it indicated that repression and state restrictions on protest were a central issue even before the marching campaign began. The Unionist government enjoyed extensive repressive powers under the Special Powers Act, including internment and the power to ban assemblies, marches, publications, and parties.  All of these became crucial in future events and ‘the Troubles’, indicating the continuity between the civil rights campaign and the political campaigning that continued even into the period of the Troubles, which is now remembered solely for political violence.

The official history of NICRA states that the association began to realise in early 1968 ‘that a ban on their demonstrations was an effective government weapon against political protest’ and that marches would provide a more effective way of exerting political pressure than letter-writing.  But even then, it was not from within NICRA that the first civil rights march arose.

The first demonstration arose from protests against the allocation of a house in Caledon, outside Dungannon, to a nineteen-year old Protestant and the eviction of a Catholic family who had squatted in it.  It was the initiative of Nationalist MP Austin Currie who proposed a march from Coalisland to Dungannon, receiving the sponsorship of NICRA after some delay through support from the CSJ and republicans and despite opposition by Communist Party member Betty Sinclair.

In the event it was attended by about 2,000 and faced a counter-protest of around 1,500 loyalists.  Ian Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Volunteers announced a rally at the same time and place as the civil rights meeting at the end of their march in what they regarded as Protestant territory – a common means of stopping parades.  The police re-routed the civil rights march to the Catholic part of the town but NICRA refused, since this would have implied that theirs was a sectarian demonstration, and in the end there were only minor clashes with the police.  The march had a distinctly nationalist colouring, which was pretty much inevitable given the character of the population demonstrating, but was regarded as a success.

Shortly afterwards Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) approached NICRA with a proposal for a march in Derry. DHAC was a coalition of left wingers in the NILP and radicals in the Republican Clubs.  NICRA agreed to sponsor it as well but it was the left in Derry that had responsibility for organising it, supported by the Young Socialists in Belfast.

The demonstration was to start across the bridge in the Waterside, considered the Protestant side of the town and the demonstration was banned by the hard-line Stormont Minister Bill Craig, even though a loyal order event that had previously been announced had been withdrawn.

The demonstration did not reach the 5,000 hoped for by the organisers and the local paper estimated only 350 to 400 took part, with a quarter of them students from Belfast, although swelling later to about 1,000. At its front rank were later leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and a number of British Labour Party MPs.

Famously, the march was attacked by the police and part of the attack recorded by Irish television and replayed in dramatic pictures relayed across Britain and Ireland.  For many, this was the start of the civil rights campaign, and for many the inevitable slide to the Troubles.  A later official British report into the events of the day found that four policemen had been injured and a further seven during later clashes on the City side, while seventy-seven civilians were injured, mostly with lacerations to the head.

From the moment that the RUC baton-charged the march in Derry in October 1968 repression of protest became a central mobilising issue, but did not yet dominate the objectives of the demonstrations themselves, which still demanded civil rights, now captured in rather clearer and pithy language that the original objectives of NICRA. This reflected the fact that the civil rights movement was still on the political offensive despite the attempt to baton it off the streets.  Unlike later struggles around military repression, the opposition to the repression of civil rights marches did not impose a defensive stance on the movement.  Its civil rights demands still defined a movement on the offensive.

This meant that the movement had not become simply a traditional nationalist one – the view of the Unionist Government and many Protestants – that it was another republican plot to destroy the Unionist State.  This was ensured by the unity that existed inside the campaign around the civil rights agenda, which although it contained nationalists as its mass base also included the radical left as a socialist component.

It was nonetheless a movement that challenged unionist domination and the unionist monopoly on political power, which was one of the main reasons why even liberal unionists steered clear of it. So while there were prominent Protestant figures involved, the movement was overwhelmingly composed of those from a Catholic background.  Definition as a socialist did not exclude one from unionist charges of anti-Protestantism but rather confirmed one’s involvement in a conspiracy that stretched from republicans to communists. In any case, while socialists might be prominent they were never numerous enough to determine the way the movement, or those who supported it, were perceived and how they would react to repression.

The lack of a large Protestant support not only removed any potential constraints on Unionist leaders or loyalist organisations but severely weakened the socialist perspective of using civil rights as a means of uniting Catholic and Protestant workers. The socialist imperative of non-sectarianism did not have an immediate payback in terms of winning Protestant support but instead sought its justification in terms of the tactics to be employed by the movement (mass action) and much more radical long-term aims (workers unity) with therefore a much longer term payback.

In the meantime, those who most loudly declared the civil rights campaign a Catholic/Communist conspiracy against Protestants were involved in their own conspiracy to prevent the campaign growing and developing one of their own, one that would ensure sectarianism continued to enforce its division.

The mid-1960s may have seen efforts, eventually successful, to create a civil rights campaign, but it also saw the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the rise of Ian Paisley.  By the time of the creation of NICRA the UVF had already murdered and Paisley had inspired riots.

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