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

Coronavirus – ‘we simply don’t know’

In my previous post I said that the initial disorientation caused by the eruption of SARs-CoV-2 was ‘evaporating’, but I got that wrong. I had hoped that what was happening was a recovery from an initial shock so that some rational inquiry would emerge among the general population.  This hasn’t happened, at least not as far as I can see.

In part this is due to the mass media, which has a story and are going to run with it; I’m reminded of that great film starring Kirk Douglas – ‘Ace in the Hole‘.  It also reflects the disintegration of the socialist and labour movement that there are no scientific organisations, milieu or debate that could focus and inform debate on what approach is in the interests of the mass of working people.  Instead we have dependence on the state which breeds deference and subservience instead of critical thought.  The illusions that arise are all the greater for their being based on real dependence.  I’d hoped that the healthy dislike and skepticism of Boris Johnson among many would lead people to be more critical, although there is still plenty of time for this.

I have stayed away from BBC News and current affairs, with the exception of the web site, for years and especially after seeing some of the coverage of Jeremy Corbyn, but I tuned in this past week to watch the Prime Minister broadcast announcing increased restrictions and the half hour ‘analysis’ afterwards.  If this is reflective of the rest of the coverage then I have missed nothing.  BBC journalists often complain about the ‘Westminster bubble’ but it is they who are the prime culprits in inflating it; when they are not talking about political personalities they are essentially talking about themselves.  I also watched one of the daily press conferences, and this was much more revealing.

None of the questions asked were answered and the two experts demonstrated that they were more skilful in not answering the question than Johnson.  What answers were given provided plenty of grounds for skepticism.  We were informed that ‘the science is coming from a low base’ and when asked whether it was true that perhaps half the population had the virus, as suggested by a study from Oxford University, the answer was ‘we simply don’t know.’

The Chief Medical Officer stated that it was ‘going to be a close run thing’ whether the health service could cope while another advisor Prof. Neil Ferguson expressed confidence that NHS capacity won’t be breached.  Johnson has got by by with promises that testing, protection equipment, and ventilators etc.will all be coming soon while also claiming that everything is going to plan.  The machinery of Government has ignored offers of ventilators while giving contracts to Brexit-supporting friends who don’t make them, just like it earlier gave shipping contracts to companies without ships.

It absents itself from cooperating with the EU, giving us all a taste of things to come, while lying about why it did it, the taste of things just past.  The only thing more personally aggravating is the silence from the British Labour Party, which is only interrupted by craven agreement with Tory policy and calls for ‘more’; which reminds me of another film – ‘Oliver Twist’.

At the end of February, the Government’s Rasputin – Dominic Cummings – is reported  to have outlined the government’s strategy as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”  It is supposed to have resulted in that strategy being revised on foot of a report from Imperial College London.  This report considers that there are two possible strategies: mitigation and suppression, outlining evidence that the Government strategy was mistaken and that ‘suppression’ of the virus was the only way to avoid a ‘likely result’ of ‘hundreds of thousands of deaths’.

It describes as its main conclusion “that mitigation is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over.”  The Government strategy therefore appears compromised because the health service can’t cope.  This is why the ‘strong and stable’ mantra of the latest Tory Prime Minister includes the dictum ‘protect the NHS’, which actually means protect the political fortunes of the Tory Government that fought the demands of junior doctors, cut nurses pay and inflicted a decade of unprecedented austerity on the NHS.

The difference between the two approaches is to move the R number, the average number of secondary cases which each antecedent case generates, to below 1, thus reducing the number affected over time.  It argues that only a strategy of suppression can do this.  The study recognises that the main challenge to this is that it has to be maintained indefinitely, until a vaccine becomes available; but it also suggests that there should be periodic relaxations of restrictions when infection numbers reduce and their reimposition when they increase again.

It may be doubted if such fine tuning is possible given lack of data on the extent of infection, the potentially misleading character of the data available as a true indicator of infection rates, and the risk that people will not find it easy or reasonable to open and shut down their lives at instruction from the Government.  The study itself notes that:

‘Once interventions are relaxed . . .  infections begin to rise, resulting in a predicted peak epidemic later in the year. The more successful a strategy is at temporary suppression, the larger the later epidemic is predicted to be in the absence of vaccination, due to lesser build-up of herd immunity.’

 

So what the report doesn’t do, as we can see, is condemn in principle the idea of ‘herd immunity’; in fact it notes that such an approach has been taken before,’by the world more generally in the 1957, 1968 and 2009 influenza pandemics’.

The report also doesn’t factor into its ‘suppression’ strategy the ‘enormous social and economic costs which may themselves have significant impact on health and well-being in the short and longer-term.’  It does assume that on recovery from infection individuals are immune to re-infection in the short term.

The significant assumption on which the study rests is an infection fatality rate (IFR) of 0.9%, based on an estimate of the experience in China. (It should be noted that the paper referenced in the Imperial College study states that ‘we obtain an overall IFR estimate for China of 0.66% (0.39%-1.33%), again with an increasing profile with age.’  That is, the application of the estimate of the IFR for the GB population derived from the estimate for China results in a figure over a third higher.)

The study then estimates the impact of the virus in age cohorts based on this figure and taking account of its increasing severity with age (for much more analysis of the full table see Boffy’s blog here):

Age group (years) Infection Fatality Ratio %
0 to 9           0.002
10 to 19           0.006
20 to 29.           0.03
30 to 39           0.08
40 to 49           0.15
50 to 59           0.6
60 to 69           2.2
70 to 79           5.1
80+           9.3

What this shows is that it is only for those aged 60 and above that the virus contains a significant risk.  As noted, the figures above rest on estimates for China and there has been criticism that decisions are being taken without reliable data. Others have pointed out that many cases of the virus have not been detected, because carriers have been asymptomatic or their symptoms were too mild to report:

‘Research published last week by Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University in New York and his colleagues analysed the course of the epidemic in 375 Chinese cities between 10 January, when the epidemic took off, and 23 January, when containment measures such as travel restrictions were imposed.  The study concluded that 86 per cent of cases were “undocumented” – that is, asymptomatic or had only very mild symptoms (Science, doi.org/ggn6c2).’

The Imperial College report quotes unidentified cases as 40 to 50 per cent of infections, based on the experience of China and those returning on repatriation flights.

This would mean that the Infection Fatality Rate in the table above would be too high since deaths recorded would be a smaller proportion of those infected, many of whom were ‘undocumented’. This does not nullify the seriousness of the threat to those in older age groups, or to those with a suppressed immune system, or who rely on the immune system for effective treatment, such as targeted cancer drugs.  It means that this is where the real problem lies.

It is also recognised that all deaths of patients with the virus have not died because of it, just as it is well known that all men with prostate cancer will not die of it.  The Government advisor mentioned above noted that one half to two thirds of those dying might have died anyway.

So it is not just that the health service was, and still is, unprepared for a pandemic, which the Government knew, but that the various arrangements that are required to protect the most vulnerable are still not in place.  Lots of initiatives have come from outside Government, which can barely coordinate its own actions, and many of the grand schemes announced by it are like its promises on testing and equipment, they remain promises.  The second category of people who may suffer is therefore health service staff themselves if, as seems possible, they become exposed too much to the virus without adequate protection.

It is therefore clear that the strategy of suppression may go the way of the previous strategy of mitigation.  The Imperial College report states that its preferred strategy involving social distancing, home quarantine, case isolation at home and closure of schools should be in place for five months, not the 12 weeks spouted by Johnson.  It envisages maintenance of such policies for perhaps 18 months until a vaccine is discovered.  This raises the question whether the shift of NHS resources to treatment of the virus for such a long time would have implications for the treatment of other patients.

The report also states that ‘suppression policies are best triggered early in the epidemic’, and ‘for suppression, early action is important’, while the British and Irish Governments cannot be accused of acting quickly, and it also admits to ‘very large uncertainties around transmission of the virus.’

In accepting the difficulties of long term suppression policies it states that ‘social distancing of high-risk groups is predicted to be particularly effective at reducing severe outcomes given the strong evidence of an increased risk with age.’

The report ends by noting that ‘we emphasise that is not at all certain that suppression will succeed long term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.’

What should be clear is that the promises of the Government have a sell by date and a use by date; promises of delivery of tests and equipment and the mobilisation of additional staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers will require that these are organised effectively.  If they are not then this will become a political challenge to the Tory Government that no amount of self-isolation will shield them from.

 

Fighting Coronavirus

An initial effect of Coronavirus in Ireland and Britain was one of disorientation, with uncertainty as to its impact and in particular its effect on those considered most vulnerable.  This is now evaporating.

The response of the British Government was a plan with four stages.

The first has passed and clearly failed.  It was called containment and was to involve trying to catch cases early and trace all contacts to avoid the spread of the infection.

The disease has spread and despite self-praise that the tracing system has been very effective there are an estimated 10,000 cases and no one knows who they are.  The disease has not been contained.

The second stage is called delay.  According to Sky News ‘this means the government will ramp up efforts to delay the spread of the illness’.  This however has only involved a recommendation that anyone with coronavirus symptoms, such as a continuous cough or high temperature, must stay at home for seven days, which appears not long enough to isolate the disease, and is anyway only a recommendation. School trips abroad should be stopped, while people over 70 with serious medical conditions should not go on cruises, which implies the problem is a foreign one that might be imported, and we are way past any such idea.

The second phase has therefore involved no actual measures so that the delay stage merely involves delaying a decision and a delay in doing anything.

This has been ignored by sporting and other bodies who have cancelled events, calling into question the Government’s strategy.  The Government, including Arlene Foster here in the North of Ireland, is hiding political decisions behind the advice of its experts.  Unfortunately, these experts are political appointments, and while Johnson gained credibility by their presence at his first press conference, their credibility will sink faster than his if they follow his agenda.  In Northern Ireland it was appropriate that the long-awaited report on the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal has just been published, reminding everyone of the lengths of stupidity that civil servants will go to in servicing their political masters.

The policies arising from the scientific advice that the British Government claims to be working from obviously conflict with that given in other countries, including the Irish State.  True to the traditions of the British state, this advice is a secret.  What we know is that Johnson appears sanguine that ‘many families will lose loved ones before their time’, and the mass media has played its role in preventing a tsunami of anger that this remark should have evoked.

On Thursday evening Radio 4 had an expert – ‘Chris’ – who continually referred to someone called ‘Boris’ as the font of all authority, as he defended the Governments’ strategy, and the interviewer gave the Government the deference it has so much enjoyed.  Social distancing measures were opposed because they could not be fully effective, but without the least recognition that less than perfect effectiveness in no argument in favour of no attempt at any effective action at all.  The strategy is clearly to allow the majority of the population to get infected in order for it to develop its own immunity and spare the health services from a task that it cannot cope with.

Delaying social distancing measures is supposed to delay the hit on the health service and flatten the impact on it; although it would appear to make more sense that the quick introduction of such steps would be much more likely to achieve this, while it also seems clear that no amount of realistically conceivable flattening will save it.

The third Phase of the British Government’s plan is called research and has been described as follows – ‘if delaying the spread fails, the government will intensify its focus on finding out more about how the virus spreads and how those who are infected can be treated most effectively.  The government has put £40m into finding a vaccine for the virus, which is undergoing clinical testing and is likely still several months off.’

So only if the delay fails will the Government focus on finding out more about how the virus spreads and how those infected can be treated most effectively???  It is impossible to take this seriously, or rather, impossible to take the plan as a serious attempt to achieve what it purports to be its objective.

The final Phase is mitigate, which, according to Sky News again,‘implies this is essentially the worst-case scenario . . . during this phase the pressures on services and wider society may start to become significant and clearly noticeable. At this stage, the virus would be considered widespread.’

However, it is clear by now that whatever impact the Coronavirus has, it will be lessened, or ‘mitigated’, less by anything the Government does than by what people do themselves, including health service staff doing their jobs.  It is beyond doubt that they are not well prepared.

Nothing in the strategy is capable of explaining how health systems will be able to deal with the massive increase in cases involving those in vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with suppressed immune systems.  Acute facilities will be unable to cope and Governments have long starved social care systems of funds even before the last decade of austerity.

Promises of additional money now are of limited use without concrete plans to quickly requisition buildings or begin to increase production of necessary medical supplies and equipment. And these will also require additional staff, who even now should be brought forward for training in some of the basic tasks that will be required, freeing up qualified medical and nursing staff to carry out more complex tasks.

Self-isolation can only work if many of those isolating are not totally isolated.  An efficient state would be identifying this need and the means of ensuring that these people receive the minimum help in terms of food and monitoring so that they are able to maintain their self-isolation.

To pose such tasks is to expose the weakness of the current health system and illuminate the truth that far from there being no such thing as society, as Thatcher and her acolytes would have it, we are all individuals who are nothing without it.  And the nature of that society determines how we survive and thrive as individuals.  A society that defers to a state that is essentially unaccountable and governed by a moronic narcissist like Trump, or sociopathic liar like Johnson, is not one that can respond adequately to the current threat.

A struggle is therefore required to fight this disease and protect our most vulnerable fellow workers and citizens.  Relying solely on the state, a top-down bureaucratic monster that now has monsters at its top, is not an option.  A campaign to demand an adequate response to the crisis from the state is therefore only one option.

I work in an office, for the state, and it took the local union committee to raise the question of dealing with the virus and its implications for vulnerable staff and their families before local management took even minimal action.  They were, and still are, waiting for orders from above, as everyone working for the state often does, at which point we are back in Renewable Heat Incentive-land.

In general, the union movement has failed to act as a movement (as has the British Labour Party), revealing the extent to which it is a purely sectional organisation and not a class movement; more and more a series of organisations hollowed out of active participants and dominated by bureaucrats.

Acting as a social mobilisation to protect the most vulnerable and isolated would make it appear relevant to many in the working class, to whom its current relevance is not that much.  In Ireland the high level of membership at least gives it the potential to play such a role, although no one can have much confidence that it will do so.

Instead community organisations, including the GAA in Ireland, could play a major role in identifying the most vulnerable and offering them support and assistance.

A pervasive social disease requires a wide social response that only organisations within and for the working class can hope to provide adequately.  This is the perspective that socialists should offer and advance.

In the meantime it is to be hoped that the Governments that have left their populations exposed without adequate protection pay a political price; that Johnson for example is reminded how his breezy cynicism promised that the county is “extremely well prepared” when it obviously is not.

While over half the country has bitterly opposed him as an inveterate liar, and most of the rest have regarded him similarly, the latter have at the same time also agreed with him and so supported him.  With Brexit this might have been easier to do as xenophobia could be employed to ‘fight’ the EU and the imagined hordes of foreigners and immigrants.  But Johnson’s lies will be no use against viral infection and neither will xenophobia and prejudice..

The virus will be with us for some time, if it ever disappears completely at all.  It will more and more become a political issue, as it should. While we all familiarise ourselves with viral infections and epidemiology, and seek to protect ourselves and those vulnerable that we love, we should not forget what our politics means in all circumstances.  The class struggle between oppressed and oppressor is sometimes open and sometimes hidden, but it always exists.

 

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 14 – the aftermath of August 1969

shankill road

Two days after the attempted loyalist pogrom the Stormont Government gave a press conference before bewildered journalists, who became increasingly angry as the previous days’ events were described as an IRA plot in which Catholic residents had burned their own homes.  A claim repeated by others, including Ian Paisley.

There was no criticism of loyalists or the Shankill Defence Association, and the B-Specials were defended.  One journalist pointed out that not one loyalist had been arrested, and when it was asked who information for a potential inquiry should be given to, ‘almost the entire hall burst into laughter’ when the Minister of Home Affairs suggested the police.

Academics from Queens’ University in Belfast later estimated that 1,505 (82.7%) of the households that had been displaced were Catholic while the number of Protestant households was 315 (17.3%) .  This was an under-estimate and did not include the intimidation by the SDA between April and July.  A separate  academic study estimated that during August and September 1969 3,500 families had been forced to leave their homes with 85% of them Catholic.  In a later three-week period in August 1971 a further 2,069 left.  Yet another study claimed that between 8,000 and 15,000 families in the Greater Belfast area were forced to flee their homes.

But this is not all there was to Belfast in these few days in mid-August 1969 and it has been argued that to believe so is to see only a partial and therefore distorted picture.  One author has noted* that at this time Belfast was divided into six police districts within which the majority of violence flared in only two, with it further concentrated in only three areas within these two.

District A, which included the centre of the City contained two potential flashpoints – Protestant Sandy Row and Catholic Markets – which remained quiet, with two local peace committees working together to maintain it.  District D covered North Belfast, including the Antrim Road which had a number of potential areas of conflict, but saw no sign of serious disturbances, and again some co-operation helped prevent them.  ‘E’ district covered East Belfast which included the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand and the RUC prevented two incursions by Protestant mobs; residents did put up barricades but did not seek to expel the RUC from the area.  The Catholic Committee worked with the mainly Protestant ‘East Belfast Peace Committee’ and with RUC so that the police presence was ‘at the barest minimum.’  ‘F’ district was the site of a number of attacks on Catholic property but barricades on the Donegall Road ‘were manned by Catholics and Protestants working in harmony’ and peace was secured during this period.

The importance of this is that despite it being widely considered as the start of ‘the Troubles’, the attempted pogrom of 14/15 August 1969 did not make ‘the Troubles’ inevitable and certainly not in the form that it was later to take.  This required the introduction of two further developments.  It is also important because it explodes a popular and lazy view that ‘the Troubles’ were an inevitable product of immutable religious/ethnic differences that equally inevitably would lead to violence.  However with this wider lens we can see that many people went to great lengths to avoid or prevent it, and even where it occurred many Protestants were shocked and opposed to the intimidation and expulsion of their Catholic neighbours.

Even in the Harland and Wolff shipyard the shop stewards were able to take an initiative to ensure sectarian violence, which would have led to a repeat of previous expulsions of Catholic workers, did not occur by calling a mass meeting of the workers to prevent it.  The political limitations of this were obvious however as Unionist politicians were invited to address the shipyard meeting and the resolution presented to the workers called upon the Government to enforce ‘law and order’.  The problem being, of course, that the forces of law and order had often led the attacks taking place, including the use of armoured cars and indiscriminate firing of heavy machine guns.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party members most prominent in East Belfast were also on the right wing of the party and led its later further degeneration as ‘the Troubles’ developed.  With this level of political consciousness, the spontaneous effort to limit the spread of violence could go no further, and certainly could not make itself an obstacle to the political developments that fueled the growth of violence over the next period.  These efforts were unable to develop an alternative organisation never mind any sort of force representing a political alternative.

Yet the view that what happened was a result of historic divisions that survived years of peaceful coexistence to suddenly erupt in communal violence is precisely the view that is proposed by the author who brings the wider and more mixed picture to the fore. Sectarian violence had been occasioned during the creation of the state and had also erupted in the 1930’s but these were clearly instrumental. Firstly in creation of the Northern state, by suppressing the Catholic population opposed to its creation, and then in the 1930’s to reimpose the sectarian division that had briefly broken down.  There was otherwise no widespread violence or even latent warfare despite the permanence of the state’s special powers of repression.

The main districts of violence were districts B and C, which included the Falls/Shankill interface and the Crumlin Road with Ardoyne on one side and the Eastern side of the Shankill and Woodvale on the other.  The writer puts the occurrence of violence here “to be explicable in terms of the role played by local collective histories of violence.”  He does mention the role of the police but employs the affected areas “folk memory” of previous sectarian violence to explain where it occurred in August 1969.

This does not explain why sectarian attacks took place later in areas that apparently were without this ‘folk memory’; does not explain how these other areas had ‘forgotten’ about previous sectarian clashes, and why the people of the areas that did suffer in August 1969 seemed to get on for years before 1969.   In doesn’t attempt to explain why folk memories should lead to sectarian attacks and how these memories led loyalists to attack Catholics and Catholics to seek to defend themselves, while the majority of Protestants did not to take part in any of the attacks.

It does not explain how these folk memories, were they so strong, and so recently validated, could be reflected in the particular response to the sectarian attacks by Catholic defence committees.  These were dominated by figures in the republican movement, local clergy and a few Catholic businessmen; but whatever their shortcomings, they did not support the sectarian intimidation that exploded in mid-August 1969.

The newsletter issued by the defence committees on 21 August said this – “For members of the Catholic community to attack Protestants is to sink to the same level as the B Specials and the Unionist extremists . . . The defence committees in the Catholic areas must offer the fullest protection to the Protestant families and Catholic sectarians caught interfering with these families should be severely dealt with.’  What ‘folk memories’ did such sentiments as these spring from?

In other words, this is an explanation in itself requiring an explanation, which is sufficient in itself to expel any speculative ideas about ‘folk memories’ causing the pogrom in 1969.

Such an explanation is a tendentious attempt to explain the violence that erupted in a couple of areas but not in others but fails to realise that it was not two areas but one from which the violence sprung, and this was the Shankill, from which loyalist mobs attacked the Falls to its west and Ardoyne to its east.  The single area can be identified because what happened was not ‘sectarian violence’ in some sort of general sense but an attempted pogrom by directly identifiable actors – the Shankill Defence Association, which had been engaged in such violent intimidation and attacks for the five previous months.

The SDA had succeeded in driving out the RUC, because it wasn’t violently sectarian enough, and had evolved as a particularly virulent strain of sectarianism from the movement around Ian Paisley.  We have seen its close relations with the highest levels of the Unionist regime and its even closer relations with the armed forces of the regime, especially the B-Specials.  This impunity, that continued throughout its attempted pogrom, gave it the wherewithal and confidence to take the initiative in open acts of terror without fear of actions by the state to stop it.  In fact, the state facilitated the attacks in the most direct way by often leading them.

So, what stood condemned by the August attacks was not so much loyalist sectarianism but the Unionist regime and state. The mobilisation of sections of the Catholic population to support the defenders of the Bogside did indeed inflame Protestant anger and fears but to blame this mobilisation is to ignore the political motivation behind such fears that had found expression in opposition to civil rights and the lower level sectarian intimidation of previous months.

Loyalist anger was recharged again when the British Government (Cameron) inquiry, commissioned to look into the events around the early civil rights marches, reported.  The findings of the Commission, which did not simply blame the civil rights movement, prompted yet more attacks on Catholic property.  Once again Catholic owned public houses were a particular target, although the RUC Commissioner described them as “just sheer hooliganism, nothing else.”  Very much, as in later years of the Troubles, sectarian killings by the hundred were described as ‘motiveless murders.’

In October this anger boiled over once more when the Hunt Report recommended that the RUC be disarmed and the B-Specials be replaced by a new locally recruited regiment of the British Army, to be called the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).  This was recognised as an important step and was described by the forerunner of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Derry as a “hitherto unbelievably successful conclusion” to the civil rights movement if fully implemented.  Peoples Democracy described the reforms as striking “at the very heart of the traditional Unionist machine.”

John Hume welcomed the findings of the Report, while his fellow MP Ivan Cooper appealed for Catholics to join the RUC and Austin Currie stated that he was prepared to join himself.  The NICRA executive stated that the long-term good required every section of the community to join.

In the event the RUC was never disarmed, they were even at this early stage permitted to carry arms ‘in certain circumstances’, and the replacement for the B-Specials was suitably similar for it to earn its own reputation for sectarianism.  Even at the time it was clear that the personnel in the existing RUC responsible for violent sectarian acts were going nowhere and the even more unacceptable members of the B-Specials were being sent application forms to join the new UDR, which many of them did.  Half the UDR in County Derry when the force became operational in April 1970 were former members.

In true Orwellian style John McKeague from the Shankill Defence Association warned that “the day is fast approaching when responsible leaders and associations like ourselves will no longer be able to restrain the backlash of outraged Loyalist opinion.”

On Saturday 11 October 3,000 loyalists decide to show how they would defend the RUC that a few months earlier they had expelled from the Shankill Road.  As ever, anger at actions of the British Government was to be expressed through attacks on Catholics, in this case the march down the Shankill was to attack Unity Flats.

Yards from the Flats they met an RUC line with the British Army behind.  Waving Union flags they attacked the RUC and, when the scale of the rioting reduced, they opened fire with rifles, sub-machine guns and machine guns.  The RUC retreated behind the military, so that twenty-two soldiers were hit and one RUC man killed. This was Victor Arbuckle, who was to be the first policeman killed in ‘the Troubles’, shot by loyalists protesting against the possibility that the RUC might be disarmed.

Image result for victor arbuckle ruc

The British Army did not immediately return fire but by 1.45 am they had begun using live rounds and no doubt expended their pent-up frustration at holding back for weeks while loyalists had thrown abuse.  By the end of the rioting 100 had been arrested and two had been shot dead, with fifty requiring hospital treatment, twenty with gunshot wounds. Loyalists attacked police in East Belfast with petrol bombs and snipers while the military prevented the burning of a Catholic church in North Belfast.  The next day the Shankill was sealed off and, as one British major put it, “we are searching everything, I’m afraid we’re not being very polite about it.”

– – – – – – –

Catholics initially felt satisfied at the actions of the British Army, although this was only a taste of what they were later to receive in much greater measure.  In Derry, Eamonn McCann recorded that ‘in the immediate aftermath of the fighting [the battle of the Bogside] relations between the army and most of the people of the area were very good . .’  He notes that women in the Bogside squabbled about whose turn it was to take the soldiers tea, although relations with the youth ‘were to deteriorate very quickly. ‘

James Callaghan had visited Belfast and Derry after the introduction of the British Army on the streets  and while Westminster publicly reaffirmed Stormont’s position, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson also announced that the B-Specials would be phased out, a tribunal to investigate the riots would be set up and one would be commissioned to look at re-organisation of the RUC.  Behind the scenes reforms were to be speeded up and the Government in London would monitor what was going on more closely through the appointment of a permanent representative in the North.

The reaction to the visit of the London Minister of Home Affairs also demonstrated the support and trust that most of the Catholic population offered at that time.  As McCann again records – ‘Callaghan had not just impressed members of the Defence Committee; he had been very popular with the people as a whole.’

He also impressed the Belfast Central Citizens Defence Committee (CCDC) which was discussing whether to take the barricades down and accept the promise of the British army that their presence at the end of every street would prevent further loyalist attacks.  These attacks had continued at a lower level of intensity in West Belfast, Ardoyne, Highfield Estate, the Shore Road in North Belfast and in East Belfast.

The Catholic Church played a prominent role in trying to get them down and, first in Belfast and then in Derry, the Defence Committees agreed, with the last coming down in October.  The republican Jim Sullivan stated that the CCDC ‘were now confident that the army would provide adequate protection.’

After the clashes between the British Army and loyalists on the Shankill the leaders of the CCDC allowed the police to come back into the Falls and on 16 October the new RUC Inspector General was conducted on a tour of the area by Jim Sullivan and Father Murphy, a prominent Catholic priest who had pushed hard to get the barricades removed.

On the day of the publication of the Hunt Report the Derry Defence Committee announced through its chairman, Sean Keenan, later to be a member of the Provisionals, that it was to disband, saying that the government “might wait a week before sending in the RUC, but that is entirely a matter for the military authorities.  With the police force reorganised there will be no objection from the residents of the Bogside. I hope they will be wearing their new uniforms when they come in.”

When he arrived, the British officer commanding the newly deployed troops, General Freeland, predicted that the Army’s honeymoon with the nationalist population would not last, and it didn’t.

*Liam Kelly, ‘Belfast August 1969’ in ‘Riotous Assemblies’

Back to part 13

Forward to part 15

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 13 – Belfast August 1969

The battle of the Bogside saw the local population expel the RUC from the area and compel the withdrawal of any threat of attack from the B-Special Constabulary.  The Irish Government made a militant sounding speech calling for a UN peacekeeping force to be brought into the North and for negotiations with Britain about its future – ‘recognising that the re-unification of the national territory can provide the only permanent solution for the problem.’

The militancy of the words however were cover for the meagreness of the action.  Although a couple of Ministers wanted to do more, and the political class in Dublin had to respond to the widespread sympathy of the population with the position of the Catholic minority in the North, they also primarily wanted to protect their own position.  Sympathy was reflected in rallies in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, which heard appeals for arms for Belfast, while Dublin Trades Council set up a fund for relief of families suffering from the attacks, many of whom had fled from their homes but with nowhere to go.

While Irish troops were moved to the border it was later noted that they went no further, and that their presence was as much an obstacle to anyone else who wanted to go North with more purpose.  This was clearly the intent of all Dublin’s actions at the time and ever since – to contain a conflict considered to have the potential to threaten the Irish partitioned state as well as the British one.

In the midst of the battle the defenders behind the Bogside barricades had called for solidarity demonstrations to tie up RUC resources that otherwise would have been deployed against them.  Demonstrations took place all over the North with some clashes arising, although it was in Belfast that the powder keg exploded.

Marches were held on 13 August on the Falls Road in Belfast, one to Hastings Street police station, where rioting broke out, and one at Springfield Road police station where shots were fired by police inside the station and fire returned from a couple of weapons in the crowd outside.  When the RUC attempted to disperse a Catholic crowd in Leeson street with armoured cars, IRA men fired some shots and threw a grenade.

Rioting increased and members of na Fianna (the republican youth wing) were ordered to attack Springfield Road RUC station with petrol bombs.  While large crowds from the Shankill Road were close by, the clashes on 13 August were between Catholics and the police.  In Ardoyne, the Catholic area on the North-eastern side of the Shankill area, residents also clashed with the RUC.

The next day the IRA were ordered to carry out defensive duties while rioting took place along the streets that linked the Catholic Falls and the Shankill, with the IRA exchanging shots with the RUC.  Loyalist mobs began attacking and burning out Catholic houses in a number of the streets connecting the two areas, coming in behind the RUC who were forcing Catholics back.  One IRA group took up position inside St Comgall’s church at the foot of the Falls to shoot at the encroaching Protestant mob but with orders to fire over their heads, which dispersed the attackers at least for a while.  Earlier in the evening a lone gunman had shot and killed one man, Herbert Roy, from the Shankill and wounded several RUC men, with the IRA claiming that Roy was a member of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force.

A number of IRA members were wounded in later fighting but the initial defending operation at the school could not stand against a much greater number of RUC who were heavily armed.  This included armoured cars with Browning heavy machine guns, which invaded the Divis and Lower Falls area, firing thousands of rounds indiscriminately.  Bullets went through buildings, with one penetrating the walls of a flat to blow off half the head of a nine-year-old boy, Patrick Rooney, as he lay in bed.  Other police fired Sterling sub-machine guns and revolvers, which one British journalist on the scene, Max Hastings, recounted witnessing – “I watched this for forty minutes . . . officers could not tell me what they were firing at.’ Four more civilians were to die from police bullets later that night.

More loyalist attacks took place further up the Falls in Clonard and again the IRA were engaged in defending Catholic streets as one – Bombay Street – was burned down by loyalist mobs.  One fifteen-year-old Fianna member, Gerard McAuley, was killed by gunfire.  Gerry Adams later wrote that the IRA’s actions had been crucially important in halting loyalist attacks at ‘decisive moments,’ and the republican leader at the time Jim Sullivan (later an Official republican) won praise from local priests. These had been afraid that Clonard monastery close to Bombay Street would be burned down when their calls for protection from the RUC had been unanswered.  By contrast, the local priest in Ardoyne had written of earlier events in July that ‘Catholics were as much to blame as Protestants’ for the clashes.

Trouble was not confined to Belfast and there were riots after civil rights rallies in Coalisland, Newry and Dungannon while in Armagh, B-Specials killed one man. In Dungannon the IRA were armed but were persuaded that any armed action would only make things worse.  In both St Comgalls, Clonard and elsewhere the IRA were too small, had too few mainly old weapons and insufficient ammunition.  In the face of much superior forces they could provide no effective defence and, notwithstanding Adam’s claim, the picture of devastation to many Catholic homes and properties after the carnage was over told its own story of its inability to prevent rampaging loyalists and B-Specials, often aided, and certainly not much impeded, by the RUC.

Republican leaders however played up their role in the defence of Catholic areas after the riots had subsided and warned the British Army that the IRA now had ‘fully-equipped’ units in the North.  While a few actions were taken along the border, the IRA was ordered not to take part in offensive operations, a more accurate acknowledgement of its capacity.  The strong public language however was seized upon by unionists to blame the IRA for the violence.  Their oft-repeated predictions of an IRA attack were now ‘confirmed’ by the battle of the Bogside, the IRA actions in Belfast and across the North, and their wider alliance with Irish nationalism proved by the civil rights rallies and the strong speeches from the Dublin government.

The reality of the maelstrom in Belfast on the 14 and 15 of August has been the subject of claim and counter-claim but even the later official Scarman Report noted that during these days the Catholic crowds never left their own territory, which was “invaded” by Protestants.  Indeed, such attacks had begun, as we have seen, much earlier in April, and in the first days of August, with repeated loyalist attacks on Catholic residents of the Shankill area and in nearby Catholic areas such as Unity Flats.  Just before the events above, on 12 August, loyalists had attacked three Catholic-owned pubs in the Crumlin Road, setting fire to one and provoking a riot.

The mobilisation of the RUC with armoured cars contrasted with their earlier withdrawal from the Shankill following loyalist attacks on them by the Shankill Defence Association (SDA).  The Unionist Government reacted to the increased violence in August by invoking the Special Powers Act and imprisoning known republicans while the Belfast Police Commissioner declared on 15 August that he and his deputy were “satisfied that the night’s events had been the work of the IRA.”

The RUC treated the attempted loyalist pogrom as an IRA conspiracy, with one senior officer making incredible claims that ‘armed bands were roaming the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hospital’, which was on the Falls Road, and that these bands had ‘also taken over the operating theatre’.

On 15 August, just a day after being introduced on the streets in Derry, the British Army was brought onto the streets of Belfast, and very much for the same reason.  The RUC misled the incoming troops into believing that they faced attack from Catholics on the Falls instead of from loyalists, who were now enraged that they formed a barrier to further attacks.

Their presence however did not immediately stop the attacks on Bombay and Kane streets and continued loyalist firing prevented the residents of these streets from returning to their burning homes. Loyalists continued to attack Catholic homes on 15 August so that when a Clonard priest asked the British for help the military initially refused and deferred to RUC guidance.  When the priest eventually did get the military to come they were shot at by loyalists, one soldier being hit twice – the first British soldier thereby being shot by loyalists.

The other major target of loyalist attacks was Ardoyne which many residents, especially women and children, had already evacuated, while barricades had been set up to protect the area.  The RUC smashed through these with an armoured personnel carrier followed by police on foot who were then followed by loyalists armed with petrol bombs.

The RUC later claimed that it was under threat and had driven armoured cars into the area in response, whereupon they were attacked by male residents throwing petrol bombs.  The RUC also claimed that it came under fire, although none received gunshot injuries and no bullets were retrieved.  The RUC on the other hand discharged twenty .38 revolver rounds and thirteen bullets from a 9mm sub-machine gun.  One 9mm round went through the window of a house and killed Sammy McLarnon.  Later, another Ardoyne resident, Michael Lynch, was also shot dead by the RUC.

The next day, on 15 August, the Ardoyne residents responded to further attacks by shooting across the Crumlin Road, which separated the area from the Shankill and Woodvale areas, killing David Linton and blinding another man.  By this stage most residents had left but the attacks continued that night, with the loyalist SDA attacking and burning nine public houses in North Belfast.  The RUC then claimed to be under further attack and opened fire with the Browning machine guns that had been firing indiscriminately in the Falls.

These could fire several rounds per second at speeds of 2400/2800 feet per second.  In one instance bullets from one weapon travelled up to a mile away, hitting a police station and causing its occupants to believe they were under attack.  The Scarman report later admitted that “it was a merciful chance that there were no fatal casualties from Browning fire this evening in Ardoyne.”  Over the two days of 14 and 15 August police fired 3,582 rounds.  Further loyalist attacks in North Belfast continued, including on remaining Catholics living or having businesses in the Shankill.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the introduction of the British Army the loyalists were compelled to call a halt to their pogrom, lamenting their failure to continue even for just a couple more days.  “Forty-eight hours”, it was reported, became the lament of loyalists on the Shankill Road, all that they needed they said to finish the job. A sentiment limited not only to sectarian thugs in the drinking dens of the Shankill.  ‘If only the bloody British Army hadn’t come in we’d have shot ten thousand of them by dawn’, as one Unionist senator was quoted as saying in the members’ dining room at the Stormont parliament.

Back to part 12

Forward to part 14

The Irish election, a victory for the left?

Lots of superlatives have been employed to describe the results of the Irish general election, almost all reflecting the dramatic growth of the vote for Sinn Fein, which is now the largest party in terms of popular support with 24.5%.  In 2016 it had only 14 % of the vote.

This is a bit of a surprise, not least to Sinn Fein, which was unable to capitalise fully on the votes received due to not having stood enough candidates.  The party had suffered badly in the previous Presidential, local and European elections and moderated its expectations accordingly.  Two stories indicate the abrupt turnaround.  One successful candidate topped the poll in Clare with 8,987 first preference votes after having failed to become a local councillor last May when she only got 385 votes.  Another successful candidate went off on holiday during the election and only campaigned for two weeks.

Two other changes were also notable.  The first was the comprehensive rejection of the ruling Fine Gael party, which had its worst result in 60 years, and the second was the failure of the main opposition party Fianna Fail, which had its worst result since 2011, when it paid the price for its role in the crash of the Celtic Tiger.  In 2007 these two parties totalled 68% of the vote, in this election only 43%.  Lastly, also worth noting in relation to other countries, was the failure of the far right, anti-immigration candidates.

This last phenomenon reflects both well and badly on the Irish electorate.  The Irish have no post-imperial hangover like the British and their history, in so far as they know it, is one of anti-colonial resistance.  The Irish are also much more aware of their true place in the world, as a home for mainly US multinationals, for whom no prostration to their needs is too much.  So, for example, the state’s inward investment agency gave a made-up award to the senior executive in Apple for the company having hung around Ireland for 40 years making money.  It should be recalled that according to the EU, Apple owes the Irish State €13.5 billion which Apple is contesting and so is the Irish State.

In any case the existing constraints on immigration and the treatment of immigrants in direct provision centres demonstrates the harshness of existing government policy.  The 80% majority in the racist referendum in 2004 is a stain on the country yet to be removed, although the views of younger people might now be very different.

So yes, the trouncing of far-right candidates is very much to be welcomed, just as long as we appreciate the context and its limits, which is what we should do when considering the overall results.

The election result is described as reflecting a ‘mood’ for change, and the sudden rise of Sinn Fein might reflect the fact that moods come and go and are never permanent. It might reflect not only the speed of change but also the indefinite character of the message being sent, just as we suffer moods but rarely experience them as well-thought-out drivers of definite objectives.

The ‘mood for change’ has however indicated some of the change demanded, primarily to housing availability and affordability and to access to health care, as well as a solution to the general malaise around state services, or sometimes their non-existence.  But how this change will be achieved is unclear, and how Sinn Fein would achieve it is also not clear.

Clear enough however is the rejection of the main bourgeois parties and a hope that the state can play a bigger role in sorting out the shortcomings of existing economic growth.  This growth has both caused the demand for change by making failures of the economic model and the government approach obvious, and made change apparently possible through the extra resources it has provided.

The question for socialists is how wide and how deep is the demand for change, reflected in the votes for Sinn Fein and rejection of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? An exit poll recorded that 48% felt it was ‘best to have a change of government’, while nearly one third believed that ‘the country needs a radical change in direction’.  Fifty-one per cent said that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were wrong to rule out forming a government with Sinn Fein. These figures are significant without being overwhelming.

Part of the reason for the result is the fact that we have had a Fine Gael government for 9 years that only had the support of one quarter of the voters from 2016, a narrow base of support for a party that has never had real majority support.  A lot of people started off not having endorsed it and Fianna Fail’s confidence and supply arrangement did not act to add any popular support.

Now the decline of the two major parties has allowed Sinn Fein to come to the fore and we have widespread commentary that we have the beginnings at least of the formation of a new Irish politics defined by a left-right division.  So who is this left?

If we add up the parties to the left of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael we reach a total of 41.5% (SF, Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, Solidarity/People before Profit) which will only be slightly greater if we include some independents, most of whom are not left wing.

There is some coherence to this left in that Sinn Fein voters generally transferred to some of these parties and research has shown that the voters for these parties generally define themselves as left wing.  Unfortunately, all this does is transfer the limitations of this purely relative term to the people who vote for these ‘left-wing’ parties. They are, of course, to the left of the two main bourgeois parties, but how much does this tell us?

Included in this list of parties is Sinn Fein, which has grown as it has dropped its core programme of support for armed struggle to force the British out of the North of Ireland.   A list as long as your arm could be written of the U-turns it has accomplished as a result, but in the South of the country most notable is that it has gone from opposition to coalition with the two bourgeois parties to openly flouting their availability for a lash-up.  If the development of Irish politics has been defined by the crash of the Celtic Tiger, it should not be forgotten that Sinn Fein voted for the bank bail-out whereby generations of Irish workers will pay for the debts of the banks.

It includes the Green Party with 7.1% of the vote, which as a partner in Government with Fianna Fail, took political responsibility for the policies leading up to the crash and those afterwards, including the bank bail-out, suffering for years afterwards as a result.  Although apparently not long enough.

It also includes the Labour Party with 4.4%, which was the only party to vote against the bank bail-out, but then entered Government to inflict punishing austerity to pay for it.  Never one to shirk this role in alliance with Fine Gael, the party may have performed this cynical trick once too often.  The point of its existence is now regularly canvassed, since its brand is discredited and other parties appear to have taken up its claimed position on the left and apparently with greater sincerity.

The Social Democrats with 2.9% is the party that most clearly represents the alternative to Labour while Solidarity/People before Profit, with 2.6%, failed to make gains and lost one seat.  In a number of seats it relied on Sinn Fein transfers to get elected, without it seems showing much appreciation.  The left changed names, split again and ‘allied’ again for the elections and hailed the mood for change but no more defined it than before.  That it failed to profit from this mood is a real failure.

For groups claiming to be Marxist it is its own judgement that their intervention always fails to call into question the role of elections or advance the organisation and political consciousness of the Irish working class.  The limits of this consciousness have instead imposed itself on this left, by which we mean reliance on the state and failure to make reorganisation of the labour movement its aim.

Behind this motley history lies a coherence that is not apparent at first glance.  Greater state intervention is common to all these parties with a preference for a left government to carry it out, however variously understood.  Now Sinn Fein has said it wants to lead negotiations of these parties to create such a government.

The numbers do not add up but this is not initially the point.  The point would be some agreement that these components should come together with their own proposal for government.  Whether it succeeds is not within its control, but it sends a message.  What happens when it does not succeed is something else again.  It would at least form a benchmark against which voters in future elections might seek reference and therefore accord relevance.

Of course, some on the left ‘left’ might denounce Sinn Fein sincerity, pointing to its implementation of austerity while in office in the North, or its use of such an initiative purely for leverage with Fianna Fail in coalition negotiations, but this would be seeking to avoid the problem.  If such denunciations were effective on their own Sinn Fein would not be where it is today.  An alternative would be to challenge the party to make real on commitment to a left programme and a left government; because of the left’s own Keynesian-type policies there are no qualitative differences with its own programme.

If this is not the approach then the claims to fight for a left Government by Solidarity/People before Profit is a fraud, for what they can only mean in such a case is that their policy is for themselves alone in Government.  Given the propensity to split this looks even further away than their already 2.6% vote would lead one to believe.  One problem is that these organisations don’t trust each other or themselves, the latter leading to splits, and if this is the case, why should the working class?

Only a united, democratic left, whatever its political shortcomings, could begin to repair this situation.

Of course, this is not a very revolutionary perspective, but there are no smart political policies or demands that will make for one.  It reflects where the working class is at, the degree to which the election results have shown the scope and extent of radicalisation.  We either meet it, and seek to develop it, or we present it with ultimatums to be more revolutionary than it is.

 

 

Sinn Fein in Government?

This week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll reported that Sinn Fein is potentially headed to be the biggest party in this weekend’s general election,  While it’s on 25% support, the governing party Fine Gale is on 20% and the opposition Fianna Fail on 23%.  Sinn Fein has almost reached these levels of support before in the Irish State but never in first place.

The Irish Times sketch writer, Miriam Lord, has described all three parties as now in various degrees of panic.  Fine Gael, because its loss of support reflects the depths of opposition to its years in office and it may be out of it soon; Fianna Fail, because of its years of keeping Fine Gael in office in an agreement between the two parties, and Sinn Fein, because it has come as a surprise to it as much as many others after very bad Presidential, local and European elections.

The Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has been described as looking like an OTR (as in an ‘on the run’- a member of the IRA who doesn’t have immunity from prosecution) on the grounds that now that they have reached this great height they don’t want to screw it up by having to answer any difficult questions.  McDonald has been acclaimed for good media performances and tapping into a widespread mood for change, while also being applauded for not being too specific about how she is going to solve the health and housing crises giving rise to this demand for change.

It would not be wrong to note that Sinn Fein’s opposition to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail does not exactly transmit into opposition to either of them being in office, only that they should be open to Sinn Fein joining them.  That of course would require a joint programme for Government, which by definition requires no significant differences between them in any potential coalition programme.  But if Sinn Fein can go into coalition with one of the most reactionary parties in Europe, I refer to the Democratic Unionist Party for those unfamiliar with Irish politics, coalition with either of these parties should not be a problem.

Fine Gael originates from part of the Irish Republican movement that fought the British in 1916 and in the War of Independence.  Leading figures in these struggles were also leading figures in the pro-Treaty side in the following civil war, including the prime military leader of the War of Independence, Michael Collins, and W T Cosgrave, the Irish State’s first Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail’s leaders also fought in 1916, the War of Independence and Civil War, just on the anti-Treaty side in the last conflict.  While the Pro-Treaty ancestor of Fine Gael supported the new Irish State from the beginning, because of the argument that it would provide ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’, the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail claim it is they who delivered it, (although it was a Fine Gael led government that declared the Irish State a Republic and Fianna Fail can’t explain what proved to be wrong with the pro-Treaty argument).

Sinn Fein holds itself to be the party both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail split from, except it itself is a split from the Official Republican Movement in 1970, its claim now resting on the fact that the Official Republicans abandoned the name and moved away from the politics of traditional Irish nationalism.  Like pro-Treaty republicans who rejected the British solution of Home rule; and like Fianna Fail, who rejected the new British solution of the Free State; Sinn Fein rejected both, but now accepts the latest British solution to ‘the Irish Question’, which on this side of the sea is more accurately described as ‘the British Question’.

All three parties now agree that the Free State/26 County State/Irish State is legitimate and now accept partition, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  They have their differing constituencies of support – Sinn Fein stronger among less well-off sections of the working class in urban areas; Fianna Fail among farmers, but also among other social layers; and Fine Gael among the better off middle class, but they all hail from the same tradition of militant Irish nationalism that isn’t militant anymore.  In the end all three provide proof of the old adage that fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

For many decades now there has been no essential, and little inessential, difference between Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), and many have ridiculed the competition between them.  It’s rather the political equivalent of club rivalry in the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), in which the cousins in one club beat the shit out of the cousins from a rival parish’s club.  If you’re in the club you don’t need explanation for the rivalry, but any explanation you might get for it will make not much sense.

Now we have a third force, which promises real change, and because of its youth, is not yet fully conscious of its position in the world and has yet to form a rounded, fully-developed and more or less permanent personality of gobshite politics. I have no doubt many Sinners believe they are opposed to austerity in the South and have not implemented it in the North, or will excuse themselves for it.  But reality says different.

Sinn Fein policies involve broadly social democratic promises, including significantly higher state spending, some lower taxes and increased taxation of businesses and higher incomes.  It has made hay with the now dropped plan of Fine Gael to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, the paramilitary police force the British used to police the whole of Ireland before partition.  There is no good reason why this particular revisionist step should suddenly detonate a reaction, but it is welcome nonetheless, even if it exposes once again the limited nature of popular nationalism.

Sinn Fein are opposed and rather hysterically denounced by both FF and FG, but both of these have recognised the electoral need to support increased state spending and reduced emphasis on tax cuts.

They and Sinn Fein also do so because, as the economic boom in Ireland has continued, the inherent imbalances in capitalist growth require a State to intervene to ensure these do not become an obstacle to further profitable expansion.  Poor infrastructure in health, housing, childcare and transport threatens to increase the cost of labour power (the value of labour power in Marxist parlance) and so provide both practical and cost barriers to capital accumulation and growth.

The two most pressing are housing and health.  The problem is that more money is not the (only) problem for both and there is no easy solution for any of the parties within the limits of their political ideologies and projects.  An unreconstructed health service could gobble up much more money without comparable improvement in the population’s health, although the worst experiences might be avoided. Pumping more money into housing could easily make it more expensive to buy and rents no more affordable.  The power of the middle class interests in both, and particularly of landowners and property developers in political networks, makes any radical solution (that doesn’t automatically involve capitalist expropriation) the last thing the major political parties will want to do.  And this will be true of Sinn Fein, as potentially a new addition.

However, in itself, the Sinn Fein economic programme offers no insuperable barrier to the formation of a coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.  The difference is mainly one of scale and the compromises involved in coalitions can cover that in every meaning of the word.  The economic boom provides as benevolent an environment as Sinn Fein is likely to get, even taking account of a potential hit from Brexit.

The potential for another recession, through another property crash (a couple of property investment funds have recently refused to allow investors to cash-out) might however reveal the underlying debt position of the state.  The bank bail-out that caused the bankruptcy of the Irish state has left an overhang of debt that is currently relatively easily affordable because of low interest rates, with yields on 10 year Irish bonds in negative territory.  But this cannot last and a recession could easily raise them.

But that is more than a problem for Sinn Fein, although it should not be forgotten that the party supported the bank bail out that made the debts of the banks the debts of the people.  Sinn Fein has thus shown that it is no more a real alternative to Fianna Fail than Fianna Fail is to Fine Gael.  It simply has yet to be demonstrated, which of course is not something inconsequential in itself.

Unlike the North, the Irish State is a sovereign state and acutely aware that the Provisionals were until relatively recently a subversive threat to the stability, if not the existence, of the state.  The Provisionals are no longer a real or a proclaimed threat but they are an armed force outside of state control, even if much diminished, and this is unacceptable.  Sinn Fein will still have much to prove and the political establishment in Dublin may make arrangements to ensure exclusion of Sinn Fein from office this time.  It may be possible, for example that Fianna Fail gains sufficiently in seats from the unpopularity of the Government that it is able to form a coalition, which some pundits predict will be the case.

The reaction of the left to Sinn Fein growth is to ask that it not enter coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.   But this left is in competition with Sinn Fein for the same constituency and has regularly denounced it as soft on both establishment parties and ever-ready to do a deal with either of them.  The alternative, which I noted in a series of posts on the strategy that the left has pursued, was to be more open to an alliance with Sinn Fein and fight to unite with it in a common alliance.  Of course, this would require some common programme, but since the left’s electoral policies are just souped-up social democracy, this too would simply be a matter of compromise without breaking any principle.  The policies of the left do not involve the overthrow of capitalism, not to mention any mechanisms for the development of socialism.

In the first leaders debate on television, the first question asked was all about why people should vote for a party if it couldn’t form part of a government.  And this was a reasonable question, because this is what elections are for.  And it was a question that rendered People before Profit/Solidarity irrelevant and Richard Boyd Barrett with nothing to say.  Listening to him there was no sense in which he spoke on behalf of a movement outside the establishment bourgeois democratic process that in itself was the alternative to the problems he and the others were asked about.

That is because the left is currently now almost wholly an electoral force, something that limits its potential and limits its development.  A long time ago it ceased to fight for socialist politics in these elections and retreated to radical social democracy.  It clearly has no idea what sort of platform a Marxist organisation should stand upon in an electoral contest, or rather It thinks it already does.  However, its Keynesian policies and state-centred solutions render the working class absent as the agent of change, making it instead the supplicant of the state it must ultimately remove and replace.

The left has collapsed into social democratic politics in order to be consonant with the existing political consciousness of the Irish working class and to demonstrate its practical relevance to it by being elected.  But this ultimately means getting into office, a step it is both unprepared to take and to which it puts up unjustified obstacles, its opposition to Sinn Fein being one of them.

While it is possible to condemn Sinn Fein for its opportunism and its betrayal of working class interests, this has to be demonstrated.  Having decided to adopt electoralism as a strategy the left should either abandon the strategy and totally re-evaluate its understanding of Marxism, or it should follow through on its electoralism and take its social democratic programme to its logical conclusion.  If history is anything to go by, the latter is the much more likely road that will be taken.