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

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.

Back to part 5

From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ 5 – those who came before

A number of initiatives preceded the creation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the organisation itself never united all civil rights activists and organisations within its ranks or even under its umbrella.  This demonstrated that the small numbers involved in each of these initiatives reflected something deeper in the transformation of Northern society.

Their ultimate success in bringing this agenda to the fore should not in the first place be credited to this or that form of organisation, important no doubt that this was, but to this underlying reality, which these organisations reflected and then in turn reflected upon society.  Looked at in this way it was the underlying material circumstances that created the opportunity to mobilise the Catholic population around a demand for civil rights and which ultimately selected the organisations that would best reflect their existing political consciousness and the extent to which it developed, or did not develop, during this period.

None of these initiatives, even the republican one that most directly led to the creation of NICRA, envisaged civil rights to be a means of doing anything other than reform the Northern State, allowing the development of what they variously considered to be normal politics.  There was no republican conspiracy and the influence of the Communist Party, which played an important initial role, was invariably a moderating one, quite contrary to Unionist red scare stories.

An important precursor and later component was the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), which began in Dungannon and was made up of impeccably middle class Catholic professionals. It developed from earlier activity around housing grievances by the Homeless Citizens’ League (HCL) set up in 1963. The HCL publicised the unfair allocation of housing, which a few years later was to be the issue sparking the first civil rights march.  Its main demands were for a points system for housing allocation and an end to residential segregation, its work helping to expose the deal between local Unionist and Nationalist politicians on sectarian housing allocation.

It was inspired, as so many civil rights activists were, by the demand for civil rights in the US, devoting itself to publicity and lobbying.  Its novelty related more to its being a break from the ineffectual Nationalist Party, and being avowedly non-sectarian, even if its membership was made up entirely of Catholic professionals, the ‘middle-class do-gooders’ later criticised by Bernadette Devlin. Launched in January 1964 in the Wellington Park hotel in Belfast, after four years of assiduously collecting information and publishing the facts about discrimination it had become no more than an irritation to the Unionist Government.

An important issue for it and all subsequent campaigns (even that of the IRA) was to break the convention at Westminster of non-intervention in Northern Ireland affairs, which was for the devolved Stormont parliament only, and appealing to public opinion in Britain and to Westminster.  Unlike the US, appealing for an end of discrimination through the courts was unpromising and campaigners were never going to get a majority at Stormont.

Of course, in Ireland there was the rest of the Irish people in the Southern State but as we have said, the Dublin political establishment wasn’t interested in challenging the Northern State but was concerned first with removing any threat to its own state’s stability, which might arise from any threat to that of the Northern state.  Northern nationalist politicians were more interested in defending their own position as political leaders of the local Catholic population than creating an avowedly non-sectarian organisation or campaign.

The Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU), launched in London in1965, was a London-based campaign based mainly in the British Labour Party, which gave the CSJ an audience in Britain. It included in its objectives the ending of discrimination in Northern Ireland and arguing for the necessity and ability of Westminster to intervene in Northern Ireland affairs against any unionist prerogatives.

The British Government was loath to intervene and limited itself at most to putting pressure on the Unionist leadership to achieve its objectives.  Like the Irish State, it sought stability and this relied firstly on the stability of the unionist regime.  The CDU could not progress delivery of civil rights because this was never a concern of the British State or the various Governments that sat on top of it, and when it did become one, the question of unionist stability became more important as a result. Without the explosion in October 1968 on the occasion of the civil rights march in Derry it is likely that the CSU would have disappeared.

While middle class professionals sought support from within the British Labour party, in May 1965 Belfast Trades Council held a meeting against discrimination attended by trade union representatives, the NILP and CSJ. It did not however lead to any permanent organisation.

It has been argued later by one socialist tendency that ‘The Labour and Trade Union Movement could have . . . brought Catholic and Protestant workers together around this issue [civil rights], but only if class demands had been raised. Instead of the dividing up of poverty they could have led a struggle for houses for all, for jobs for all and for a living wage for all workers.’

Aside from the political weakness of the labour movement in the North of Ireland due to the strength of sectarianism, which makes this assertion very doubtful, it is clear that the question of civil rights was raised inside it and it was always subordinated to the usual economist demands of the movement, just as this tendency wanted.

It was not therefore the case that civil rights was pushed to the exclusion of, and counterposed to, what is erroneously considered ‘class’ demands. Some leftists, liberals and Catholics had joined the NILP in the mid-1960s and the previous setbacks to the Party had weakened the pro-Unionist MPs.  In 1965 the Party conference voted against the Special Powers Act and in 1966 it and the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions demanded ‘one man, one vote’, fair electoral boundaries for local government, measures to end discrimination in housing and employment, fair representation on public boards and appointment of an ombudsman.

As we have seen in the previous post, the NILP took some progressive positions but could not take the lead in a civil rights campaign, and not even a militant campaign around economic demands (considered wrongly by this tendency to be more ‘class’ based demands than equality and an end to sectarian discrimination).  No trade union was later ever to affiliate to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Whatever the abstract truth of the need for working class leadership to achieve working class unity, and how to make this more than a tautology, the labour and trade union movement in the North of Ireland showed itself incapable of challenging the Unionist regime or Protestant workers support for it.  Its own organisational integrity was always held up as the primary unity to be protected by not being too ambitious.  In this way all progress could only, and did, pass it by.

This did not mean that support from the NILP and trade unions should not have been sought, and we can see that it was.  What would have been wrong however would have been to hostage a civil rights campaign to such support, so that no other means to creating a campaign could have been considered. A political challenge to discrimination and sectarianism should not have been opposed, abstained from or refused participation within because, ultimately, it is argued that only the working class movement could deliver an end to sectarian division and the much sought-after unity that socialism requires.

As we have seen, a wide range of forces took up the mantle of civil rights, at this time with little effect. From the Ulster Liberals to the NILP, Communist Party and radical leftists, all could see the injustices that were becoming less and less tolerable, especially to young Catholics.

At this time the Communist Party of Northern Ireland claimed that “closer examination of the anti-democratic laws reveals that they are aimed at the Catholic population, to some extent, in the main they are aimed against the interests of the working class”.

Again, such a position might be true from a general socialist standpoint, but such a position would not be enough to overcome sectarian division since it would only be possible to accept this argument that sectarian division was against the working class as a whole if the working class as a whole was seen to have its own interests separate from its Protestant and Catholic parts.  Most Protestant workers however were clear that sectarian practices were against Catholics.

It was subsequently the initiative of the republican movement to create a campaign against discrimination and for civil rights that created the organisation now most clearly recognised as the civil rights campaign. The republican movement of the day is not to be confused with Sinn Fein today, which (as the Provisionals) were formed later, and whose leaders were opposed to the strategy at that time adopted.  The strategy of the republicans at this time did not involve repudiation of armed struggle but rather acceptance that it was not at that time possible.

The republican Wolfe Tone Societies met in Maghera in August 1966 and discussed a document on civil rights with a view to a convention on civil rights and a civil rights charter. Not all republican leaders were enthusiastic, but the broad proposal was accepted and a seminar held in Belfast in November.  This agreed to launch a civil rights body at another meeting to which a variety of organisations and all the local political parties were invited.  The launch took place in January 1967 and the civil rights campaign was born.

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Forward to part 6

From Civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ – part 4 Labour’s failure

Political developments inside the Catholic population set out in the previous post were reflections of changes within a seemingly stagnant Northern society, most notably the growing strength and confidence of its middle class and greater educational opportunities for working class Catholics.

For the former, if they shifted away from simple rejection of the Northern State it was not because they had strong material interests in that state but because they had the possibility for this to be the case.  For the latter, the increasing economic and social role of the state, including welfarism, made equality and the state’s opposition to it a much more immediate issue and one for which the State could not avoid taking clear responsibility.

Gerrymandered local government boundaries meant that discrimination became an acute issue as more and more Catholics who had received higher levels of education felt aggrieved that their efforts might be wasted, while their integrity and identity was being insulted, never mind the material loss of income to go with demeaned status.

Since an increased role for the State in housing provision through local government also made the state more directly responsible for Catholic disadvantage through discrimination in housing allocation, this too became a more blatant injustice. All the more insufferable in those areas where Catholics were a majority – west of the Bann and especially in Derry.  Belfast Catholics were almost always more aware of their vulnerability as a minority and the threat to their security – it wasn’t possible to be anything more than a minority, at least locally.

It could be no surprise therefore that the civil rights movement began in a real way outside Belfast and never became a mass movement inside it, certainly not in the way it was to become in the rest of the Northern State.  This heavily influenced the political development of the fight for reforms and the evolution of the socialist alternative to the varieties of nationalism that later triumphed in the struggle to lead the struggles of the Catholic working class.

So, in histories of the civil rights campaign it is the students at Queens University that appear prominently, and the Peoples Democracy organisation that they created that plays a key role. Later events confirmed that while students are an important segment of society they cannot substitute for the working class, which of course some of them were, and increasingly would, become.

The welfare state not only gave Stormont a more obvious role in the distribution of public resources but was a component of greater capitalist state intervention into the economy and society more generally. Greater state planning involved projects for new hospitals, roads, towns and a new university.  All gave opportunities for religious disadvantage given the geographical difference in the settlement of the two religious populations.  Promotion of new industry also had differential impacts on the two religious groups, with declining traditional industry mainly in Belfast and East of the Bann being replaced by outside investment in these areas.

This welfare state didn’t reflect the strength and struggle of the working class, and was primarily, as elsewhere, a means of socialising costs for capital by the state, but it did give some benefits by reducing inequalities between workers and encouraging their demands, in this case that distribution should be fair and equitable.

Accompanying the modernisation of state intervention was a modernisation of rhetoric from the Unionist regime in the person of the new Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill. O’Neill sought to modernise economic policy with a number of reports and a strategy of attracting outside investment. A new town, new university and new roads, and in 1964 recognition of the autonomous Northern Ireland Committee of the all-island Irish Congress of Trade Unions all reflected this new agenda.  New industry was attracted – Michelin, Du Pont, Enkalon as the old declined – and new economic and political links established with the South as O’Neill met Taoiseach Sean Lemass at the beginning of 1965.  All this persuaded the Nationalist Party to become the official opposition in Stormont for the first time in its history.

O’Neill’s policy was a result of the decline of traditional industry and therefore the erosion of the economic and social basis of the devolved regime, which would become more and more dependent on London and the political vagaries of politics at Westminster, especially if decline were to continue.  The election of a Labour Government in 1964 encouraged some nationalists to believe that the new Labour Government would be more sympathetic to Catholic expressions of grievance than the previous.  In this context, the existence of a small group of Labour MPs sympathetic to the nationalist case was seen as an important route to push for Westminster intervention and effect a break from the existing convention that London would not intervene in Stormont’s devolved responsibilities.

O’Neill’s policy was also a response to political pressure on Protestant working class support for the Unionist Party, which was suffering from the erosion of support consequent on the decline of traditional industry and growing unemployment.  Protestant workers were increasingly deserting the Unionist Party, threatening the all-class nature of the Stormont regime’s support.

Just as today predictions of unionist decline and defeat are partly based on increasing numbers who do not define themselves as unionist (or nationalist), so the increase in votes for the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as the growth of class-based politics.  While perhaps easily dismissed now in hindsight, were a similar growth to develop today it is likely that some left enthusiasm for such a development would actually be greater.  It is therefore important to consider the question whether Unionist rule could have been overturned by the Protestant working class?

The 1958 Stormont election saw the NILP do well with unemployment growing in Protestant working class areas, winning four seats against unionists in these areas, although the nature of the Party and its leaders at this point needs to be taken into account.  For example, in his maiden speech one newly elected NILP MP attacked nationalists as sectarian for complaining about discrimination. Just as today when loyalists present themselves as defenders of the interests of the Protestant working class, the emphasis of the NILP at this point is on the limiting attribute of ‘Protestant’.

In the following 1962 election the NILP retained their four seats, and with the IRA campaign over, achieved its highest ever vote of 76, 842, although the Party didn’t win any more seats.  In Belfast the NILP vote was 60,170 while the Unionist vote was 67,450.  The latter however included 5,049 business votes, few of which would have gone to Labour.  Some foresaw the NILP as a ‘formidable contender’ for control of Belfast in five years’ time.  In 1964 the NILP increased its vote again to 103,000 in the Westminster election, although winning no seats.

In 1965 O’Neill called a Stormont election and despite fielding more candidates the NILP vote fell to 66,323, losing two of their four working class seats. O’Neill’s modernisation agenda had stolen much of the platform of the NILP’s social democracy, and his image was less overtly sectarian than previous Unionist Party leaders.

This arose from O’Neill visiting Catholic schools and meeting members of the church, which gained some Catholic goodwill while generating loyalist anger.  He was still however a member of the Orange Order and joined two other loyal orders after becoming Prime Minister.   None of the minority’s grievances regarding gerrymandering of local government, discrimination and the Special Powers Act or B Specials were touched.  Even the Unionist newspaper, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ later noted that appointments to public bodies made a mockery of O’Neill’s professions of goodwill.

The sectarian character of the Unionist regime remained intact and the most prominent members of the NILP in the early 1960s were opposed to challenging its discrimination. These leaders faithfully reflected some of the most backward ideas within the Protestant working class rather than attempting to lead them somewhere more progressive.

Their commitment to the constitutional status of the state was absolute, and their reactionary character was exemplified by a relatively minor event that has since become notorious for demonstrating the NILP’s reactionary cowardice.  In November 1964 a motion in Belfast Corporation to open public play centres on a Sunday was defeated by one vote with two Labour members of the corporation voting against it – the swings in the parks were to be locked and closed.

By 1966 it was clear that the NILP could not oust the Unionist Party but there was nevertheless a small constituency which was sympathetic to Catholic grievance.  Throughout the 1960s the NILP took up issues later prominent in the civil rights campaign, including opposition to repressive legislation and an enquiry into discrimination and gerrymandering.  What the Party could not do was either mount a credible challenge as an alternative majority in Stormont to the electoral hegemony of the Unionist Party, or lead an alternative movement outside of the electoral arena – a Labour-led civil rights movement.

This meant that the defeat of the Unionist regime and its sectarianism would not come from within the Protestant working class or, it would appear, from the ranks of social democracy reaching across the sectarian divide to Catholic workers.  This would have required a larger and stronger Party more committed to ending the sectarian division through popular campaigning. The organisation of even a small number of individuals from the Protestant working class with such a perspective would have been exemplary but would have found it extremely hard to change the dynamic of later events that led to the troubles, and would even have found it hard to maintain organisation as sectarian mobilisation increased within Protestant working class areas.

Instead there were a number of ominous developments in the mid-sixties that would later become typical of what has been called a loyalist ‘backlash’, although as examination of the period shows this was a backlash that came first by creating the circumstances employed to justify itself.

Violent loyalist activity preceded the troubles, with notable riots in 1966 in protest at commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.  Attacks on Catholics and their property led to two Catholic men being shot dead and one Protestant woman killed in a petrol bob attack on a Catholic pub next door to her home  The Orange Order denounced the Rome-ward trend of Protestant churches and there was a push against O’Neill in the Unionist parliamentary party that included four out of nine cabinet members.

Even by 1966, before the civil rights campaign had really started, or the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had been created, a ‘backlash’ had erupted against purely symbolic diluting of sectarian supremacy.

On the Catholic side disillusionment had set in by 1965, with the hopes raised by O’Neill generating disappointment and some bitterness. Nationalist Party participation as an official opposition in Stormont was gaining them nothing.   By 1964 the first organisation with a recognisable political agenda based on civil rights had been set up.

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From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 3 – nationalist failures

As we argued in the previous post, the civil rights movement grew out of the failure of the traditional alternatives which Catholics in the North of Ireland looked to in order to address their grievances.  These had sought to address the problem at source – through removing partition and ending the Northern State itself.

The first of these was through the Nationalist Party, whose various participation and absence from Stormont were equally ineffective.  Belfast Catholics also voted for various Labour parties and individuals and some radicals joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1960s, especially in Derry where they later played an important part in the civil rights movement. The Nationalist Party however was hardly a party at all, with no party structure, only holding its first annual conference in 1966, and was dominated by small businessmen, farmers, professionals and the clergy.

As the Anti-Partition League (APL) the Party had sought in 1945 to unite all those in the North opposed to partition and, like a couple of decades later, hoped that the new Labour government in London would be more sympathetic to its cause. The Party also appeared attuned to the times when Fianna Fail in the South ramped up its nationalist rhetoric when faced with a greener competitor on its flanks: Clann na Poblachta as part of a coalition Government in the South declared the Irish state a Republic in 1949.

The League tried to build a real organisation with offices and branches and to create a campaign with meetings and rallies across the North, also looking to the Irish in Britain and US, as well as in the Irish state.  Hopes of progress faced an intransigent Unionist government that banned nationalist demonstrations, while the Unionist Party increased its grip on Protestant workers assisted by Labour politics in the North splitting over partition.

The inevitable failure of the APL and lack of organisation of its successor signaled that Catholic disadvantage would not be reduced through constitutional campaigning. Relying significantly on local Catholic notables and the Church, the latter was more interested in its own temporal power than that of its flock, and this entailed funding from the Stormont regime and an amicable relationship with it.

The strongest Irish nationalist movements were the political parties in the South, but they too were more interested in the security and strength of their own partitioned state, which also came to be seen as linked to an amicable relationship with the Unionist State.

The second force within the Catholic population was nationalism in its more militant guise of republicanism. After the defeat of the Anti-Treaty forces in the civil war the defeated IRA sought a ‘second round’ of struggle against the Free State, the traitors who had split the movement and betrayed the true Republic.

Despite strenuous claims by republicans as to the continuity of their movement it is the discontinuities which are most remarkable, and the greatest break in the continuity of the movement in the 20th century was its attitude to the Irish State.  Today the idea that the main goal of the IRA should be to overthrow the Irish State would seem incredible, but this only illustrates how much the movement has changed.

A further split in the Anti-Treaty movement and the creation of Fianna Fail in 1926 exposed the weakness of militant republicanism and its nationalist politics. With Fianna Fail in government the lack of any principles based on class left it with no political rationale for prioritising overthrow of the new Irish State.  Popular opposition to any such project made ditching this objective easier, while also simpler to pass over the change in programme without anything being learned.  It was however now saddled with a policy that sought to abolish partition but without fundamental opposition to one of the partitioned states, the one previously considered to be the immediate and principal enemy.

Robbed of the perspective of a ‘second round’ against the Free Staters, the IRA embarked on a bombing campaign directly against Britain in 1939, which exposed the strategic weakness of the movement.  It was however saved from even greater humiliation by bigger concerns created by the much larger conflict.

The remaining target was the Northern State itself, which had witnessed isolated IRA action in the 1930s and 1940s, but which became the central target of a border campaign launched in 1956.  This however spluttered out long before it was brought to a formal close in 1962, when the IRA was forced to dump arms while blaming the people for lack of support.

In fact, elections in 1955 had shown that there was significant support in the areas where the campaign was expected to operate, so it appeared again that no real lessons were learnt, although it should have been clear what these were.   The restriction of IRA activity in Belfast already indicated some appreciation of weakness, but without any apparent consideration about what this might have meant for the effectiveness of its strategy as a whole and republican politics more generally.

There were now no more strategic targets left, with all three states in opposition to it having easily crushed attempts at armed rebellion.

At this point some in the republican movement did begin to learn lessons, which if fully comprehended and absorbed would have radically transformed the movement.  Unfortunately, the new emphasis in the 1960s on economic and social agitation was not in itself an alternative to belief in the power of armed struggle, and when this radical reconsideration was later completed by the Official republican movement it was not to lead to the embrace of socialism, but to the stultifying and corrupting grip of Stalinism.

Since Irish Republicanism had long become a militant form of nationalism, and Stalinism had long become a nationalist form of socialism, the difference between militant nationalism and nationalist socialism was both easy to cross over and easy to erase. Nationalism was common to both, as was the understanding of socialism as primarily amounting to state intervention by the existing state, with the cherry of a left governing party at the top of a capitalist cake.  Today some left-wing republicans have attempted to come to terms with the defeat of Provisional republicanism through embracing the current incarnation of Stalinism, although in doing so they have simply repeated the experience of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the identification by some republicans of the need for attention to be given to economic and social agitation did provide an important thread that led to the creation of the civil rights movement. In this they were joined by concerned members of the Catholic middle class and radicals and leftists in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In doing so these various currents would come together to identify a radical approach to the growing concern of many, a concern with what might seem to be a programme of limited reform, but which contained within it much more explosive potential.

That diverse movements came separately to this point indicates that forces more fundamental than themselves were working, and we will look at these in the next post.

Of course, in the end, the nationalist consciousness of the vast majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland was not broken by the civil rights movement despite the earlier failures of such politics.  As a result of this, more radical socialist and even left republican politics were not so much defeated as marginalised by the dynamics of developments as these ran into the ‘troubles’.  But before we get to that we will look at the progenitors of the civil rights movement.

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From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 2 – from reform to revolution?

A common left-wing view of the move from a struggle for civil rights to a struggle against the existence of the Northern State itself is that it was an inevitable shift from an attempt to reform an unreformable state to a necessary struggle to destroy it; a move from reform to revolution.

In terms of the subjective intentions of many participants this is largely true, although latterly Sinn Fein has been claiming that actually, it was all about civil rights and equality right the way through.

This, of course, is nonsense, and a complete re-writing of history, but no one but the young or ignorant takes such claims seriously.  Ironically however, such claims are correct in one important and unintended respect, arising from the fact that the political significance of events does not simply depend on what people think they are doing but the objective significance of their actions.

As Marx once said – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Given the material constraints on people’s actions; the impact on them of the actions of opposing forces, in addition to their own imperfect understanding of what is happening and will happen, it is inevitable that the results of what they are doing are often not consistent with what they intended, or hoped and expected would be achieved.

Certainly, many later recollections by leading participants in the civil rights campaign expressed their shock at the viciousness and scale of the reaction against their modest demands, indicating that they did not fully understand what the results of their actions would be. In the first post I pointed to their statements, even at the time, where this confusion was honestly expressed.

So if we look at what the objective significance was of the struggle for civil rights and the republican armed struggle against the state it is clear that it was the former that destroyed the coherence of the Unionist regime in the North and it was the latter, and its leadership, which led to incorporation of the opposition to the state into participation and support for it, after a long time it must be admitted.

This is where we are today, with republican in-out participation in Stormont and acceptance of partition and British rule.  Since it was never possible for the IRA campaign to defeat the British State their struggle was eventually forced to seek a different goal; the objective significance of their struggle, its woeful inadequacy to its declared task, imposed itself on their subjective intentions to the extent republicans ended up lying, claiming that really it was never about ‘Brits Out’ and always about ‘equality’.

So if we want to look at why events took the course that they did, and what the consequences would most likely be of the various political strategies put forward at the time, we need to understand firstly the circumstances of the struggle.

Partition created a sectarian state in the North of Ireland in which those loyal to the foreign power were a majority.  Their colonial privileges were thus both more secure but also less significant, especially as the state was deemed to be an integral part of the imperial polity and there were therefore limits to how much these could diverge from the democratic norms of the rest of the UK State. There was not therefore the enormous differences in living standards and democratic rights that existed in most colonies where white men ruled native populations. In this particular colony the differences in rights and resources that existed in imperialist occupation of African and Asian societies could not exist.

Features of colonialism existed but were less pronounced. Many Protestants and Catholics lived in different areas – and the Troubles saw this separation increase – and land ownership demonstrated the privileged position of Protestant landowners and farmers. Traditional industries with good jobs were dominated by Protestants while Catholic unemployment was significantly higher.  The repressive forces of the State were staffed almost wholly by Protestants who had more or less exclusive access to arms.

The disintegration of the Unionist regime was heralded by the decline of these industries and the necessity to modernise the economic base of the state through foreign investment, which had no necessary requirement for discrimination. The growth of the Catholic population and employment; the change in economic structure, and the reduction in relative Catholic unemployment has since reduced these colonial features.

There exits therefore a politically divided working class, but it is a single class and not a settler colonial population sitting on top of super-exploited natives.  Neither simple anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism or unproblematic class unity are adequate ways of understanding the tasks of socialists.

Inequality between Catholics and Protestants was thus necessary because of history and to maintain support for, and justify the existence of, the state to the majority who supported it.  On the other hand, such sectarianism was inconsistent with any claim to the bourgeois democratic norms which the British State claimed for itself.  The state ‘solved’ this contradiction through majority support for its rule within the state and ignoring the sectarianism, discrimination and repression that this involved.

The civil rights movement accordingly developed as a claim for rights that were supposed to already exist, and be guaranteed by Britain, but which clearly did not.  The purpose often expressed by the civil rights campaign was therefore to get British intervention to remove the discrimination and sectarianism that was ingrained in the local regime by forcing that regime to reform, or for Britain to take over from it if it did not.  In effect, imperialism was being asked to intervene more directly, clearly not what normally might be considered an anti-imperialist demand or requirement of an anti-imperialist struggle.

The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was therefore inspired by the black civil rights movement in the United States, which didn’t have the option of seeking black rights through separation and creation of a black state, but which did have the possibility of forcing intervention by the Federal Government, especially its judiciary, against individual States.  Ireland was clearly different because the majority of the Irish people did have their own state and unity with it was always viewed as the ultimate solution by the majority of the Irish people and by democrats everywhere

The development of the civil rights movement however showed that this was not a realistic option, the Irish state could neither enforce unity nor ensure equality for Catholics in the North.  In fact, it wasn’t particularly interested in either.  When it too began to seek outside capital, it joined with the Unionist regime in the North in seeking to make the island attractive to foreign investment, which meant a new Free Trade Agreement with Britain in 1965 and falling in behind Britain in seeking membership of the European Economic Community.

This is yet another example of the world not being as people think it is.  The majority of Catholics in the North see themselves politically as nationalists and view politics in nationalist terms.  They have therefore repeatedly displayed illusions in the willingness of the Irish State to come to their aid and protect their interests. Its repeated failure to do either shows that whatever weaknesses there have been in socialists’ understanding of political dynamics, they have understood that it is the class interests of the Southern bourgeoisie and its State which have dictated its determination to ally with Britain.  Reclaiming the fourth green field doesn’t come into it.

The Catholic minority in the North appeared to have a number of options to address its grievances and it was the failure of the solutions its nationalist political identity naturally pointed it to that laid the basis for the development of the civil rights movement, and which saw Irish Catholics demand British rights.

These potential solutions included the Irish State, Southern political establishment and public opinion around the world addressing the wrong of partition. A second solution involved the armed overthrow of the Northern State by militant Irish republicanism, building on its earlier achievements.

The decline of traditional industries owned by the Unionist capitalist class and of industries such as shipbuilding dominated by Protestant employment lay behind hopes that the Unionist regime itself would have to reform its most repellent sectarian practices. The advent of the apparently moderate Terence O’Neill as the fourth Prime Minister of Northern Ireland gave rise to such hopes, if not expectations.

Finally, there was some hope that Protestants themselves might seek to end sectarian discrimination, a move that could really only arise and be effective if coming from the Protestant working class.  Such hopes have always been a significant component of socialist strategy, and in fact such a strategy requires it to some degree.

The failure of each led to the development of the civil rights movement, and the next post will set out the story of this failure.

The reality of Northern Ireland in this period dashed one other illusion.  The belief that the struggle had moved from one of reform to a question of revolution led some socialists to argue that since the Northern State could not be reformed it had to be smashed.  Since this required a united Ireland and such a struggle would, and was, opposed by the Southern State and capitalist class, the struggle for an Irish democracy could only be led by the working class and achieved through the struggle for socialism – a Workers’ Republic.  And of course this requires a revolution.

The logic may be impeccable, but it is still a formula, and one that does not start from the material forces that would take the formula from the realm of ideas into the reality of political practice – the final confirmation required by Marxism.

The working class in the North was bitterly divided, with the majority refusing to accept, never mind support, the equality of Catholic workers.  Irish workers in the Southern State were sympathetic with opposition to Catholic oppression in the North but the nationalist grounds for this sympathy excluded any identification of a common material and class interest with the Northern Struggle that would have produced a common struggle.

The struggle in the North did not, and could not, engulf the South of the country because there was no common force propelling a shared struggle by the whole Irish working class. The effectiveness of partition in dividing the working class is the major reason it has been so bitterly opposed in the first place.  The struggle in the North spilled over episodically, after Bloody Sunday and during the hunger strikes for example, and the sympathy in the South that existed did limit British state repression, but it could not summon up a common struggle, never mind a common movement for socialism.

In other words socialism, a Workers’ Republic, was not on the cards.  This does not mean that there were no grounds for socialists to intervene, or that they should not have fought for socialist objectives or under a socialist banner.  Socialism involves an immense transformation of existing society and the struggle for it will take many years and go through many stages.  Marx said it, and history has conclusively demonstrated it.

That stages exist in the struggle to advance working class interests, that take forward the unity and organisation of the working class and increase its political consciousness, is inevitable and obvious, but does not mean that these stages are predefined in duration or limited in advance.

Mass demonstrations, riots, the downfall of Governments and political crises can all give the illusion that more fundamental social transformation is happening and is possible than the purely political and relatively minor changes that are actually occurring, or are achievable at that time.  Gun battles, bombs and the rhetoric of armed struggle can make this seem even more the case.

Marxists however are interested not simply in political changes in which the basis of capitalist society remains intact, even if reformed and modified in some way. Socialist revolution requires more than political change, but necessitates the working class becoming the rulers of society through control and ownership of the means of production, which determines so much of everything else important in society.  A revolution is therefore primarily about the revolutionising of the working class so that it not only has the potential power to take over society but actively desires and has the capacity developed through struggle to do so.  The working class in Ireland was far from this point.

The period of struggle from civil rights to a challenge to the existence of the Northern State must therefore be viewed from a socialist perspective with an understanding that socialist revolution was not possible, and this should not be controversial.  What we need to learn is what socialists could have done to advance the interests of the working class in conditions which were not at all propitious for socialism but from which lessons can be learned.

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