Covid before cancer. Or maybe not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Another lockdown – Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The significance of John Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The interview is a contemporary record of the many problems discussed in these posts, expressing the confusion that existed among the participants.  As Bernadette Devlin says “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves.  I’d say that there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .” While Michael Farrell stated near the end of the interview that “we cannot form any high level organisation. As we do not yet have the theoretical basis for any clearly determined policies, in fact we have not even discussed some elementary problems.”

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

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

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

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

This proved to be a major difference between McCann and Farrell, who argued that “we have radicalised the Catholic working class to quite a considerable extent and to some degree got across to them the necessity of non-sectarianism and even the fact that their Protestant fellow worker is almost as much exploited as they are.  But we have failed to get across at all to the Protestant working class.”  The rebuttal by Farrell is therefore not an unqualified one.  Bernadette Devlin then argues that the real difficulty was “support from Catholic capitalists and bigots.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluded

Back to part 4

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 2

Civil rights and socialist strategy 2 – fighting for reforms

The long history of sectarian division; support for imperialist rule by many Protestant workers; and illusions in different variants of Irish nationalism by Catholic workers, is the reason why I stated at the start of the previous post  that the most significant weakness of the civil rights movement was that it was short-lived: the sectarian character of the Northern State immediately tested the small movement, and with the intervention of the British State, effectively destroyed it.

So there was no prolonged period in which a mass civil rights movement could struggle to win over the participation of the labour movement or sections of it, which really means winning over significant numbers of Protestant workers; this movement proclaimed its own unity only by not challenging political division.  We should also be clear that workers unity was not possible by relegating this struggle to a still-to-be-born united workers struggle for socialism.  Unity would not have come from waiting for the labour movement to act before acting outside it because the labour movement didn’t even act when a non-sectarian movement was created and did act.

This chronic weakness, which existed at the all-island level, where the whole Irish trade union movement was also not mobilised, demonstrates how far away the grounds were for a socialist solution.  Yet most of the radical left considered that what was necessary was a socialist struggle and what was posed was a fight for revolutionary politics against the explicit reformism of the Official republicans and Communist Party.  The Northern State could not be reformed and the fight was one against partition and for a Workers’ Republic.  This perspective needs some unpacking.

We have already seen that one version of it is the view that economic and social – ‘class’ demands – should have been brought to the fore and the key to socialism was winning over the labour movement.

A second version is that since the North is irreformable the struggle for reforms should be superseded by the fight for a united Ireland and a Workers’ Republic, in which case demands for reform such as civil rights should also be superseded or at most given a subsidiary role, in perhaps detonating the struggle or being only one subsidiary part of it.  In this view the demand for civil rights does not (certainly automatically) unite workers but exposes the need to destroy the Northern State, whose existence determines and ensures the division.

The struggle for democracy shows the need for a struggle against the state and for socialism – a process of permanent revolution whereby the state’s inability to deliver democracy exposes the need to destroy it, which can only be achieved through a Workers’ Republic since the capitalist Southern State also does not wish to challenge British rule (which stands behind the Unionist state) and seeks stability through continued partition.

In this view the shift in the struggle from civil rights to one against the State itself is a progressive one, moving from the illusion that reforms can be achieved and are sufficient to an explicit opposition to an irreformable state.  This brings closer workers appreciation that the struggle commenced can only be successfully concluded as a struggle for a Workers’ Republic as opposed to a united capitalist Ireland.  The demands of the struggle become progressively more advanced.

Unfortunately, of course, the struggle also progressed in advance of the majority of the working class.  Civil rights was overtaken by the sectarian mobilisation of grassroots unionism and by repression from the Unionist regime, which itself challenged the struggle for reform to become one of struggle against the state’s existence, or at least in the form of the Unionist regime that was in place.  This pushed the movement further than the forces against the state were capable of successfully going or many wanted to go.  While the struggle for civil rights moved to one against the existence of Stormont itself, this begged many questions about goals and strategy which could bring it about, and what would happen thereafter, that weren’t answered and that lay behind the seemingly endless years of ‘the Troubles’.

A third version of this left view at first glance appears different, but some have argued for it and the view above.  It argues that the Northern State could not be reformed (and we must leave aside here what the definition and scope of such reform is) but that any such radical reform would remove the foundations of the state and lead to its dissolution.

This was never the conception of the argument as understood at the time in so far as, and to the extent that, it was understood at all; because if this was the case the argument might have been to continue to fight for fundamental reform as the way of maximising working class unity while undermining the state.  Such an argument does not preclude seeking the end of then Stormont regime, as opposed to seeking the more or less immediate end of the Northern State itself.

All of these perspectives envisaged the direct intervention of the British State, even if this was not thought through, and such intervention was the goal of the civil rights movement, either because of the belief that Unionism would not reform without British pressure or that they would not reform at all.

In summary, the first left view regarded a socialist programme that included civil rights within it as the key to achievement of working class unity, primarily within the North.  The second looked to the struggle for democracy breaking the bounds of civil rights to become a struggle against the Northern State itself and partition, with the solution as a Workers’ Republic.  The primary struggle was thus against British imperialist rule with the expectation that this struggle would more or less automatically grow into a socialist one.  The third regards the struggle for radical reform as sufficient to undermine the Northern State and pose the question of a united Ireland and a Workers’ Republic.

These more strategic conceptions lie behind the differences that arose on the left about the correct intervention into the civil rights movement that arose during this time, and since, by those directly involved and which we shall look at next.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Civil rights and socialist strategy 1 – what was civil rights for?

The civil rights movement, considered as those that sought mass participation, was disparate in organisation and uneven in strength, including geographically across Northern Ireland.  It consisted, inter alia, of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (including its sponsoring organisations), various organisations in Derry including the Citizens Action Committee, and Peoples Democracy, as well as numerous local initiatives coloured by local circumstances.  This heterogeneity reflected unity around the immediate demands and fundamental differences over end goals.  Above all the movement was short-lived and none of the perspectives behind support for civil rights was able to see their particular view confirmed.

For example, the middle class leadership that later formed the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) sought a partnership with the Unionist regime in Stormont and the solution of the issues raised by civil rights through local parliamentary reform, in which the legitimate and democratic aspirations of the Catholic minority would be respected following pressure from the movement and from Westminster.  The increasing use of violent repression, the slowness and limited character of reforms, and the priority given to support for the regime by the British Government meant this strategy collapsed.

Republicans who were later to become the Official Republican Movement, and its allies, thought of civil rights as a means of removing obstacles to the unity of workers in the North.  There is nothing wrong with this view since it is obvious that no political unity could be achieved while accepting the inequality between Protestant and Catholic workers, which was fundamental to their disunity.

They were correctly criticised by others on the Left for not putting such unity within the framework of the unity of all of Ireland’s workers, not just in the North but between North and South.  But civil rights didn’t address this problem and for the Officials the necessary first step was therefore progress within the North, and given their statist view of the road to and content of socialism – deriving from Stalinism – this meant reform of the Northern State.

The Provisionals, which did not exist during most of the period covered in the previous series of posts, did not have much use for the civil rights movement since for them its primary function was to demonstrate the irreformable nature of the Northern State, which could only be destroyed by the armed struggle of the IRA.

For the radical left, civil rights was also viewed as a means to unite the working class, but as part of a revolutionary process and not, like the Officials, one of reform.  There were a number of ways in which this could be conceived, including that it was necessary to put forward a socialist programme, sometimes concieved as transitional demands, within which civil rights was only one component.  Peoples Democracy raised left wing demands and slogans as part of its support and participation in the civil rights movement and recognised the importance of uniting workers North and South.  Unfortunately, their symbolic march from the North to the South in 1969 demonstrated not only the weakness of socialists but of the grounds for working class unity between the North and South.

This might seem to be a flawed judgement, since the largest membership organisation in Ireland, North and South, was the trade union movement with, for example over 200,000 members in the North.  However, as we have seen in these earlier posts, the official movement may have passed resolutions that supported civil rights but its leadership never fought for its members to campaign for them, either by setting up its own campaign or supporting NICRA.

Despite its moderate demands and determinedly non-sectarian purpose no trade union affiliated to NICRA, and when a sectarian pogrom blew up in August 1969 the trade unions stood four-square behind the Unionist state.  The working class, as in all developed capitalist societies, has potentially enormous power but this potential has never been fully expressed and the working class was politically divided.

To say that working class unity was necessary to destroy sectarianism is simply to say that working class unity was necessary to achieve working class unity.  In other words, such a perspective doesn’t get you very far.

It has often been proposed that a programme weighted more towards ‘class’ demands was necessary to win Protestant workers, who might argue that the inequality that was claimed to exist wasn’t doing them much good and that equality of poverty was not a sensible way to win them over.  Unfortunately, there were real inequalities between the working class of each religion and this was something many Protestants were unwilling to acknowledge or to accept the significance and importance of.

For some, acceptance of the demands of the civil rights campaign meant accepting the legitimacy of Catholic grievances and so their responsibility, or complicity, in letting it happen.  This challenged both liberal pretensions of Britishness and more extreme views about Catholic disloyalty. It is also not the case that Protestant workers opposed the demand for civil rights because they saw it as a Trojan horse towards a capitalist united Ireland.  The imperialist and monarchy-supporting Unionist tradition was and is reactionary across the board and opposed a united Ireland whether it was socialist or not; in fact communism was as dirty a word as Republicanism for the vast majority of Unionist workers.

The view that demands that challenged the ills of capitalism should be primary left open how important should be considered the civil rights denied to Catholics. When this was put up to the labour movement through a campaign made up overwhelmingly of working class and poor Catholics it became a choice of whether to participate, and attempt to lead that campaign, or stand aside.  The labour movement chose the latter and the excuse that the civil rights campaign was not the way to do things rings hollow when no other way was put forward and previous more sedate means had ignominiously failed.

It is not accidental that the view that civil rights was not the issue, but general want and poverty, was argued at different times by hardliners in the Unionist Government who wanted promises of job creation etc to defuse demands for civil rights; the middle class leadership of the Derry Citizens Action Committee who appreciated the poverty that existed and wished to take the edge off confrontation with the Unionist regime and seek and accommodation with it; and various left figures who sought to turn the underlying shortage of jobs and housing etc. into a struggle against these deprivations and for a socialist solution.

This last view is only true at a certain level of abstraction, i.e. when one discounts the actual grievances around inequality which existed and passes over the actual political struggle and campaigns that prevailed.  It also ignores that the demand for civil rights challenged sectarianism directly, and all of the above recoiled for different reasons and to differing extents from this reality and what it then entailed.  For Unionist hardliners the reason was the integrity of their regime; for middle class Catholics the possibility of compromise with this regime, and for some on the left the unwillingness to accept the real mass support for the regime among Protestant workers.

The radical left inside the campaign did try in various ways to raise wider economic and social demands, explaining their opposition to the capitalist Southern State and support for jobs, houses and decent wages for everyone.  This message was carried forward through propaganda, marches, meetings and elections.  In recollections by all the left leaders involved at the time, whatever their disagreements then and now, it is clear that the necessity for such an approach was understood and acted upon.  These forces however were too small and the working class too divided and in thrall to unionism and nationalism for their actions to succeed.

Forward to part 2

Back to last part of history of the civil rights movement

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 16 – the Brits and the IRA

I have already put up a number of posts on the politics of the IRA, beginning here, so I won’t repeat myself too much here.  In narrating the start of ‘the Troubles’ it should be recalled that despite its split in 1969/70 the growth and reorganisation of both IRAs did not immediately translate into widescale and open fighting.  The first British soldier was not killed until 6 February 1971.  In Derry Eamonn McCann records that ‘in the spring of 1971 the Provisional IRA in Derry for practical purposes did not yet exist;’ and when they did start shooting at the British Army ‘it can be doubted whether initially there was mass support for this escalation.’

For ‘the Troubles’ to take the form that they did, dominated by armed republican action and a counterinsurgency campaign by the British state, which employed loyalist paramilitaries as auxiliaries, the key ingredient was the development of complete disaffection of the Catholic population from the Northern State and the necessary ground this provided for the IRA to grow and operate. Even then, the political mobilisation of the Catholic population lasted only a few years after 1969, before the prorogation of Stormont and British refinement of repression placed that mobilisation in a strategic bind, without the ability to realistically take the initiative or seriously impose its own political solution.  Thereafter its political mobilisation was a defensive one dominated by campaigns against repression – against internment, against Diplock courts, criminalisation of their struggle, against shoot to kill etc. etc.

The Provisional IRA conceived and presented its campaign as an offensive one aimed at expulsion of the British presence; but when faced with political negotiations that produced ceasefires it was utterly unable to press this solution on the British, despite illusions that this is what the British wanted.

Without a political programme short of this ultimate objective the Provisionals put forward positions that fell far short of a united Ireland and involved no necessary transition to it. An illustration of this is the front page of An Phoblacht, the weekly newspaper, on 24 December 1972, at the height of the IRA’s campaign, which said that the four preconditions for an end to the IRA campaign was abolition of repressive legislation, British troops to be withdrawn, release of all political prisoners and full support for civil rights.  ‘Then – and only then – will we have a true and lasting peace in Ireland.’

These bargaining positions co-existed with uncompromising rhetoric that suggested the movement was on the brink of victory. This was used to keep it united, and to sustain morale and support by presenting the movement as strong and confident. Without it the actual potential political gains that could be made from its struggle could never inspire the military campaign and the killing and sacrifice it necessarily entailed. The current political agreement championed by Sinn Fein would have been regarded as insulting and derisively dismissed by 1970’s Provisionals.

Sinn Fein has, although recently less and less, praised the IRA for its leadership in the struggle while at the same time saying that republicans had no choice but to take up arms.  However, one can hardly be praised for doing something for which one had no choice but to do.

One can also not be criticised for defending oneself against attack.  The problem is that the choice the Provisionals made was to launch an explicitly offensive campaign aimed at expelling the British Army.  For this and all its consequences it can be criticised for adopting an objective it could not achieve and for which it therefore necessarily adopted more and more desperate measures, illustrated for example by its expanding definition of ‘legitimate targets.’

The Official IRA claimed to adopt a purely defensive campaign, although it is clear from the split that led to the IRSP/INLA that this was either not supported by many of its members or not understood.  Eamonn McCann quotes one Official IRA member as saying ‘shooting soldiers is shooting soldiers’ and seemed to endorse this view – ‘the Officials claimed their campaign was ‘defensive’ and not ‘offensive’ a distinction too nice for anyone involved in the situation to understand’. (‘War and an Irish town’)

No distinction was understood because the armed struggle strategy of Irish republicans is a principle and not a political calculation, war is assumed and not a result of prior political analysis; war might be the pursuit of politics by other means but this simply indicates the poverty of republican politics.

It would be wrong however to blame republicans for ‘the Troubles’ even if they bear heavy responsibility for their actions and for the prolongation of their campaign over decades without the slightest chance of victory.  The cardinal responsibility belongs to the British State which decided to protect and defend a reactionary unionist regime that was never reconciled to civil rights for Catholics or for their equal political participation in society.

This defence led to extreme repression which involved daily humiliation and harassment and outright torture and murder. It is exemplified by events such as the Falls curfew in July 1970 in which a whole area was effectively put under martial law, was flooded with CS gas and in which the discharge of over 1,500 rounds resulted in the deaths of three civilians, none of whom were members of the IRA.  The British Government’s Lord Carrington later admitted the operation was counter-productive and illegal.

The British Army also learned that some of it actions were mistakes and changed its tactics, something the IRA failed to do, given the increasingly limited options it had available to it to allow it to keep fighting.  As Cathal Goulding, one-time leader of the IRA and then of the Officials stated, republicans had a strategy for fighting but not for winning.

The second major event was the introduction of internment on 9 August 1971 when 342 Catholic men were imprisoned without trial after widespread arrests beginning at 4.30 am in the morning.  Some 166 were later released but no loyalists at all were arrested.

The third was the murder of 14 civil rights demonstrators on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry on 30 January 1972. The victims on this day were not only those murdered but also the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) which organised the demonstration.  A week later there was another huge demonstration in Newry but NICRA was effectively dead for the purposes of challenging the existing denial of civil rights and the imposition of sectarian suppression.  It had already for some time been evacuated by the most radical elements as the vehicle of protest and organisation.

All these actions by the British State were responsible for the creation of ‘the Troubles’ and all were deliberate actions following a preconceived policy.  They came to be regarded as mistakes only because they failed in their objective.  Other outcomes other than ‘the Troubles’ as defined above were possible but not after this.

This does not mean that after 1972 nothing could be done to change the course of events as they developed, but that is a new chapter of the story with which we will not be concerned.  In the next posts I will go back to the first in this series and look at the lessons for the Left arising from the civil rights campaign and the strategy and tactics that were discussed.

Back to Part 15

Forward to the first part of civil rights and socialist strategy

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 15 – what were ‘the Troubles’?

If we were to stop the clock in late 1969 in Northern Ireland, even at this point we would not have been witnessing the conflict that has been called ‘the Troubles’, as it is now commonly understood, though we would have seen enough to know that this was a possible destination.  Defining when they started defines what they were.

To count October 1968 as its commencement would exclude the relatively low-level sectarian mobilisation of loyalism, aided by the state, which claimed a number of lives in the mid-1960s – sectarian killings by loyalist paramilitaries.  Does this violence not deserve inclusion in anything called ‘the Troubles’?

It would exclude earlier attempts at achieving reform by numerous forces that all failed, yet the reasons for the failures determined the actions of those later fighting for civil rights and of those opposing them.  How could an explanation for anything called ‘the Troubles’ exclude the birth of the movement that brought large numbers of Catholics and some Protestants onto the streets to demand civil rights and large numbers of loyalists to violently oppose them?  How could we account for the Troubles without including the complete opposition of the Unionist state to reform that preceded 1968?

But perhaps dating the start of ‘the Troubles’ only requires the occurrence of greater levels of politically generated violence, even if what caused this is to be excluded.  But what then determines our selection of an arbitrary level of violence to warrant inclusion?  The violence in 1968 was shocking at the time in ways that much greater levels later were not.

Were we to date the Troubles to August 1969 we would have to exclude the formation of the civil rights movement and its campaign, its attempted suppression in October 1968, the significant mobilisation of loyalism on the streets and the collaboration with their violence by the Unionist state.  We would define the commencement by a mass sectarian pogrom but exclude the organised intimidation that took place earlier in 1969, when again a number of people were killed.  Are we to determine the start with a big bang that had no beginning?

Perhaps we define it by the arrival of British troops on the streets to prevent the rapid descent into growing civil war?  Britain at this point then stood to impose reforms upon the Unionist Government in return for stabilising the existing political framework, disguised as stabilising a volatile political situation.  But we would then exclude what brought them onto the streets in the first place and what led to their initial interventions.  And how would we provide a coherent narrative if it began with British clashes with loyalism and support for the British Army by the Catholic population, which within two and a half years would be in complete opposition?

‘The Troubles’ therefore is a neologism designed to obscure.  Defining it is not a real problem because it doesn’t refer to any single thing or event; as a name for a series of events it is misleading and insulting. Thousands of deaths characterised as ‘troubles’?

By August 1969 and the months after, the unionist regime and its mass base was still opposing reform, with those most vehement getting stronger as the Catholic population failed to go home and accept whatever the unionist regime decided to allow it.  By this time the regime had demonstrated that many promised reforms were at its discretion and that it could not be relied upon to provide even the basic functions of a impartial state, its forces having collaborated with the most vicious sectarian attacks.

For these reasons the Catholic population understood that it still needed to mobilise to achieve the reforms promised, and even more important needed to maintain vigilance and organisation to defend itself against the de facto alliance between the Unionist state and loyalist vigilantes.  The initial British intervention appeared to assist both objectives by placing political pressure on the Unionist regime and standing in the way of the worst loyalist violence.  For some few months the most violent clashes in Belfast were between loyalists and the British Army – on 7 September, 27 September, 4 & 5 October, and 11 & 12 October 1969.

Unfortunately, the primary purpose of the intervention was to secure the same reactionary regime that was the barrier to thorough-going reforms and the ally of violent loyalism.  The British Army was, after all, introduced ‘in aid of the civil power’, not a beleaguered minority.  The Unionist regime therefore had its own leverage because the British had given it to them.  When the British Home Secretary James Callaghan asked whether Chichester-Clarke could broaden his Government (presumably by recruiting some Catholics) he responded by saying that there was ‘absolutely no possibility’ of this.

There was therefore no possibility of any Catholic exercising governmental power, even on behalf of unionism, which might raise a question – what was the point of civil rights if this was excluded?  This voluntary subordination, or rather deferment, to the Unionist regime was reflected on the ground by the British Army, which met weekly with the RUC and Unionist Government, by its ceasing cooperation in mid 1970 with the Derry Citizens Central Council.

This had been set up to administer the agreement between Derry Catholics and the British Army that regulated its policing role after its arrival on the streets in August 1969.  It had been set up and was dominated by ‘moderates’, so refusal to cooperate with it signalled a changed approach to the whole Catholic population.  When a spokesman for the British Army was asked about this decision he replied that ‘the army is subordinate to the Stormont Government. We will fall in with their plans.’

After a Scotland Yard investigation into the beating of Derry man Samuel Devenny met a wall of silence from the RUC, and no action was taken against police for their behaviour in the  ‘battle of the Bogside’ – despite recommendation that it should – it appeared to many that the RUC was above the law.  Catholic moderates were now put in the same position of powerlessness that for decades had made the Nationalist Party irrelevant.  After everything that had happened, and irrespective of any reforms that were or were not slowly working their way through to implementation, this was not going to be sustainable.

Yet, once again, to write the story solely in this way is to ignore the support which the British Army originally received from the Catholic population.  It would ignore the support of the leadership of the Catholic population behind the barricades for their being taken down and the state forces, so recently implicated in mass intimidation, being allowed back into the areas they had attacked.  It would ignore the actions of the majority who refused to violently attack their neighbours because of their religion.  Only when this is understood can we also appreciate the culpability of the Unionist regime and the British State for the further descent into violence that is normally painted as the result of increased sectarian clashes and which is known as ‘the Troubles’.

Certainly these clashes ratcheted up tension and fuelled those seeking to prevent any sort of meaningful reform, but on their own they could not be decisive.  Even after the events in mid-August in Derry’s Bogside and in the Falls and Ardoyne, the Catholic population was prepared to see what the reforms would deliver.  Impatience and suspicion grew as did the antipathy of Catholic youth to the new masters, while republicans also increased their support and organisation, but none of this made ‘the Troubles’ inevitable.  The most radical demands of the Bogside defenders for example had been dropped, including the demand for an end to Stormont.

This situation however could not continue and the demands of the Catholic population had inevitably to come up against the prioritisation of the maintenance of the Stormont regime, which remained implacably opposed to Catholic political mobilisation.  Tension between the local population and the British Army was inevitable and the routine symbolic manifestations of Protestant sectarianism, particularly loyal order marches, were bound to cause clashes.

A series of riots broke out in 1970 at the end of March and beginning of April in Ballymurphy in Belfast following an Orange parade, after which the British Army GOC threatened to shoot dead petrol bombers, the Provisional IRA said it would shoot at the army if anyone was killed and the loyalist UVF threatened to shoot one Catholic for every soldier.

At the end of June an Orange Order parade along the Whiterock Road in West Belfast was attacked by a Catholic crowd (according to the RUC and British Army), which involved shots being fired, perhaps by the Official IRA.  ‘The Guardian’ correspondent on the scene stated that ‘the Orangemen were prepared for trouble: one could say with some fairness that they initiated it.’  One Protestant man, William Thomas Reid, was killed.

Later, on the same day, shots were fired into the Protestant Bray Street after clashes between rival crowds on the Crumlin Road, leading to the death of three Protestants in this and nearby streets. Prevented from attacking Catholic Ardoyne by the British Army the ‘huge [Protestant] mob, crazed by a vicious combination of drink and hatred’ turned on other targets, resulting in the shooting of one RUC man and one British soldier.  A Provisional IRA leader in Ardoyne described the 27-28 June 1970 as the time when the IRA won the support of the local population, ensuring that there would be no repeat of the events of the previous August, although it has been pointed out that it was Catholic women who brought tea to the British troops after the rioting.

The British claimed that if the events of August 1969 were the fault of groups on the Protestant side, it was those on the Catholic side who were to blame ten months later.

The Orange parade that had taken place in the Whiterock Road was attended by loyalist bands from all over Belfast.  One band returning from the parade passed by the Catholic Short Strand area in East Belfast, leading to a confrontation with local residents.  The events during this clash are controversial, with claim and counter-claim that shots were fired during the encounter.  The real trouble however took place that night and is the subject of even more controversy.

The appearance of an Irish Tricolour apparently prompted an attempted attack on the Short Strand by a Protestant mob, which the Provisional IRA had anticipated, firing shots out of Seaforde Street and subsequently from other locations, followed later by return fire from Protestants.  In the ensuing exchanges of gunfire, which went on until daybreak, the leader of the Provisional IRA in Belfast Billy McKee was badly wounded.

The standard version of events is that the IRA defended the isolated Catholic area from loyalist attack.  Local Protestants have bitterly disputed this, claiming that the attack was by nationalists on loyalists.  Three people were killed, two Protestants and one Catholic, all shot by the IRA, with forty Protestants suffering bullet wounds but only one Catholic, Billy McKee.  As a consequence, on the morning of 29 June a meeting of a few hundred Protestant workers in the nearby shipyard led to the expulsion of Catholic workermen, although most were back within the week.  Loyalists started recruiting to the UVF in East Belfast and a new loyalist paramilitary group was set up, the Red Hand Commando.

These episodes bring into focus a central element of what has been called ‘the Troubles’; the resurgence of the IRA.  The conflict that had erupted out of Catholic political mobilisation and loyalist attacks on Catholics and Catholic areas was seen as an opportunity for republicans to take the initiative, to attempt to relaunch their own organisation and advance their central political objective.  As Brendan Hughes quoted Billy McKee saying:

‘this is our opportunity now with the Brits on the streets, this is what we wanted, open confrontation with the Army.  Get the Brits out through armed resistance, engage them in armed conflict and send them back across the water with their tanks and guns.  That was the Republican objective.’

Back to part 14

Forward to part 16