Farewell to a Comrade

My comrade and friend Kevin Keating died on 8 May following a diagnosis of Glioblastoma in March last year.  He had asked me to say a few words at his funeral but circumstances did not permit this.

Instead I submitted a few personal words to his wife Anne, but I now write about the political example that Kevin’s life embodied.

The two are not separate. Kevin’s qualities as a person are integral to a political appreciation.  He was warm and kind, as prepared to listen and learn as he was to speak and teach.  His honesty and integrity were fundamental to his political beliefs and practice, so that he recoiled from the cynicism and hypocrisy that characterises much left political practice.  His political commitment was without any personal calculation and arose spontaneously from his revulsion against oppression and his belief that there was a socialist alternative.

His history of political activism shows that this was a consequence not of opposition to any particular oppression but was motivated by universal opposition to all oppression.  It developed into an abiding commitment to Marxism as the only politics adequate to ending all exploitative and oppressive social relations.  It was evidenced in his youthful radicalisation and his participation in international solidarity movements; more recently his support for abortion rights in the Repeal the Eighth campaign and in his opposition to clerical control of the new National Maternity Hospital.

He was born into a working class area of South Dublin and drew his developing political views from this background – his position as a young apprentice in a militant working class – and from the experience of working class revolt that had spread across the world in the late sixties and early seventies.

He briefly encountered the Young Socialists in the early 1970s, and after Bloody Sunday in 1972 he joined the Republican Movement.  He left that movement due to misgivings over its secret negotiations with the British State and the exclusion of the rank and file of the movement, not only from any input into them but full knowledge of their conduct.

As he notes in an interview with him here not long before he died, this was not the only time the Republican Movement involved itself in secret diplomacy, always to the detriment of the struggle its volunteers were engaged in and the people it claimed to be fighting for.

Kevin later joined Peoples Democracy at the time of the republican hunger strikes, convinced that it provided the way forward for the campaign for political status and the struggle in the North.

While many members of Peoples Democracy subsequently left that organisation for Sinn Fein, believing that anti-imperialism meant defending republicanism which meant supporting republicanism, Kevin was convinced of the correctness of his move to Marxism, a journey very few took before or since.

This commitment to socialism has been described as inspirational by his comrades, while the modesty with which he defended this commitment has also been recalled.  The two are not unrelated.  Kevin inspired because of his modesty, a quality he had despite the rarity of his journey and the perspicacity of his political judgement.

I still remember his criticism of the politics of much of the Irish left that, just like Oliver Twist asking for more, this did not mean seeking the end of the workhouse system.  As Karl Marx once said “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”

This modesty made him his greatest critic, never content with received wisdom and always open to learning.  He neither forgot the world-wide radicalisation of the period in which he became politically aware, nor did he simply believe it would return in the same form.  He never looked back from his departure from republicanism but neither did he renounce opposition to partition, imperialism and its division of the working class.

He never denied defeats, but never disallowed that victories were possible.  His certainty about Marxism did not prevent him acknowledging problems, from asking questions and seeking answers.  His physical courage so evident in his political activism, and his living with cancer and its horrendous treatment, was matched by an intellectual courage that was not afraid of listening to the views of others.  He was not dogmatic but still remained committed to the fundamental ideas of Marxism.

My fondest memory was when we spent a week together at a World Congress of the Fourth International, spending hours walking and talking in between sessions about the issues being debated.  For him no authority, and especially of those in working class and socialist organisations, was beyond questioning or criticism. In fact, they, above all, were to be subject to them.  This is what working class organisation was all about.  Why republicanism was to be rejected, why trade union bureaucracies were to be fought, and why socialist organisations should be models of free debate and criticism.

An Australian at the World Congress told us that Bruges was a short distance away so we decided to take a day away from the congress and take the tram and train instead.  It was extremely cold as we walked the cobbled streets of Bruges, which ‘forced’ us to go into one of the many pubs for a drink.  We decided to take turns buying a round and to get a different drink at each round.  Because we were in Belgium the bar had dozens of different beers of all prices and strengths.  One round would cost a fortune and the next one would be cheap.  One would taste like diluted water and the next one would blow your head off.

Neither of us being able to hold our drink, we gave up after about four rounds and decided to go home.  Neither of us satisfied the image of a stereotypical Irishman who could drink until the cows came home.  I said that we should rather think of ourselves as Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in the film ‘In Bruges’, and that he was the Brendan Gleeson character and I was the Colin Farrell one.  From the smile on Kevin’s face it was clear that he thought not only did he not look like Brendan Gleeson but I didn’t look like Colin Farrell.  And he was, of course, correct.

It is as a friend that I will miss him most but also politically.  As I normally sit down to write a post on this blog the person I would think most often of as my audience, whose opinion I would anticipate and consider most intently afterwards, was Kevin’s.  His lifetime commitment to socialism was well encapsulated by his choice of song at his funeral, Phil Och’s ‘When I’m Gone’ –

Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

In life, so now in his death, he has inspired his comrades to continue to dedicate their lives to the struggle for socialism under the banner of Marxism. “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence, and enjoy it to the full.”

Derry TUC publishes a Workers’ Charter

On May Day Derry Trades Union Council (DTUC) launched a Workers’ Charter and published it in local newspapers.  It argued the need for trade unions and for workers to organise to push for real change.

The Charter raised ‘the Red Flag of workers’ unity and socialism’, calling for ‘a Living Wage for all’ and ‘a shift in the balance of wealth and power away from corporations and the rich and towards the rest of us.’

We should therefore ask ourselves – what does this wealth and power consist of, where does it come from and how do workers shift the balance?

If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it is that the wealth of society is the product of the labour of the working class, with some of the lowest paid workers recognised as key to the functioning of society.

So if they are so crucial, why is this not recognised in the remuneration they receive?

The reason that they enjoy so little of the fruits of their labour is that their labour power is exercised for the production of profit, because production only takes place in pursuit of it, and is derived only from the labour performed by workers for which they are unpaid.  That is why they must now work and why they are paid so little.  They don’t own or control the corporations that they work for, which provides the enormous incomes and wealth of those who do, so the economy is not a function of need but of the expansion of this unpaid labour.

The supermarket workers do not own Tesco, which is paying out a £900m dividend to its owners despite getting a tax break, but they are absolutely necessary for this dividend to exist.  Many firms loaded with debt will get Government bail outs while the private equity firms that own this debt sit on $2.5 trillion of cash.  The state will not take this into account as they do the meagre incomes and savings of workers who apply for welfare.

The rich owners of corporations are rich because they own the means of producing the wealth of society. Their wealth and power comes from control over the production that generates current income and accumulated wealth. Health Service workers such as cleaners, nurses and doctors are exposed to danger because they also don’t own and control the NHS. They have no more control over their pay and conditions than those who work in private hospitals or private care homes.  If they did the shortage of personal protection equipment would not have existed.

The answer to shifting the wealth and power in society is therefore to shift ownership and control of production to the people who work to create this wealth.

Derry TUC correctly point out that vast sums of money have been found to cover the Covid-19 emergency after years of tiny wage increases for health service and other workers – ‘the money was there all along’.  It wants a tax-free payment of £1,500 for all front-line workers plus an additional four bank holidays a year.

But the money wasn’t there all along.  It has been borrowed.  It’s now a question of whether, how and who will pay it back.  Money was found for the financial crisis of 2007-08 but austerity was imposed to pay for it.

The DTUC statement says that the government is putting the ‘economy’ and profits ahead of protecting people and public health.

But the ‘economy’ is also about the production of all the goods and services that are required to protect people and their public health.  Not only the goods and services the NHS needs, that NHS workers need, but all the other economic activity that pays the taxes that funds the health service and other services, including any tax-free payments of £1,500.

The ‘economy’ is not something separate from the activity of working people, that has needs wholly separate from their needs.  That is the lie peddled by the Government and bosses.  The working class is the working class because it is the prime productive force of the ‘economy’.

The ‘economy’ is not just the production of profit but also the production of what people need in order to live in a civilised society.  We cannot survive without continuing to produce and no amount of additional money will be of any use to us if we cannot continue to produce.  Working people will be the first to suffer, and the last not to, if whole parts of the ‘economy’ are closed down.

That is the prime contradiction of the capitalist system – that it is production for profit but must also satisfy human need – and capitalism incurs crises because of this opposition.

The battle now is to ensure that the terms and conditions of those workers who return to work are safe and acceptable, and that depends on workers being ready to go to work organised and ready to stand up to the demands of their bosses.  That is the lesson from health workers already having to face a lack of PPE.  This requires introducing as far as possible mechanisms of workers control.

It also means the organisation of all those workers who are now unemployed and who are threatened with being idle in the longer term.

Workers cannot afford not to work, they aren’t capitalists, and capitalism does not pay for workers unless it is profitable.  It would be the height of stupidity to say that we should not return to work because this is demanded only because the bosses want to make money.  Of course they do!  Until we have a new society based on production for need, and not profit, we have no choice but to recognise this reality, to face up to the economy we actually live in and struggle within it to defend ourselves while also fighting to change it.

Capitalism will not be overthrown by refusing to work, or pretending we can change its laws by simply demanding that profit no longer rules.

Once again, it is workers ownership and control of production that is key to workers’ defence and a socialist alternative.

The DTUC says that ‘globally, one per cent of the population holds half the world’s wealth.  We need a new system’.  But why is this true?

The world’s decisive capitalist class and its corporations (with its various States) holds the vast majority of wealth creation – that is what defines them.  They are smaller than even one per cent, and own or control much more than half.  Their lavish riches composed of multiple residences, private islands, yachts, private planes, fancy cars, jewellery, stocks and shares, and bank accounts with millions, are only the product of their real wealth and power, which is their ownership of production and the political power that derives from it.

Derry TUC points specifically to the amount of money spent in the UK defence budget, ‘set to reach £55 billion’.  But why only this? UK ‘defence’ spending is only 2.1% of GDP.  What about the other 97.9% that is all produced by workers?  Should it not also be directed to their needs?  And how else would this be done except by controlling it, which means owning it?

The statement calls for ‘a government of the people’, investing this money in areas such as green energy, but why should the State own and control this?  The Irish State already owns significant parts of the energy industry in the North of Ireland as well as in the South, and this isn’t socialism. Governments already invest significant amounts in Green energy through subsidies to wind farms and taxes on consumption but this has not brought the transformation of society any closer.

The point is not to increase this state ownership but for workers to develop their own energy production, something more and more possible with smaller and more distributed renewable power generation. The point is to increase the wealth and power of the working class, not the State that defends the existing capitalist system and subsidises the capitalist class.

Derry TUC says that ‘politics has taken power away from the people moved towards the major corporations.’ But this is misleading.

The most fundamental power has always lied with the capitalist class, its system and the laws by which it operates.  The capitalist class and its state has increased its power over many years but it has always had power over the working class.  Working people can defend themselves and resist, but to create their own power and to create a society in which their power prevails requires an economy owned and controlled by workers and by no one else.  To fight for this requires more than bigger and better trade unions; it requires the creation of a mass democratic working class Party.

This is the lesson we must re-learn and teach every May Day.

In his inaugural address to the workers of the First International Marx extolled –

‘the still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands’

To achieve this, Marx said, ‘the great duty’ of the working classes was to ‘conquer political power’ and this required the organisation of a working class party.

The policy of that Party cannot afford to defer the tasks of the working class to the capitalist state, or to pretend that tinkering with the distribution of the fruits of labour through increasing wages etc. is a substitute for revolutionising the distribution of the ownership and control of production.

As Marx said in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, a programme representing an earlier Workers’ Charter:

‘Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically.’

‘If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?’

Why indeed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Protecting’ the NHS

I watched the BBC Panorama programme on the NHS and the Government failure to prepare properly for the Covid-19 pandemic, despite warnings.  It focused on its failure to stock and resupply adequate amounts of appropriate Personal Protection Equipment, and to spin the amount of PPE newly received by, for example, counting a pair of gloves as two items and including cleaning disposables as equipment.

The Tories cannot legitimately complain if they have made the NHS the centre of controversy because it is they who put it to the fore – ‘Protect the NHS’ is the slogan, with ‘success’ of its whole effort defined as the NHS not being overwhelmed by casualties of the virus.  It is important we don’t buy into this.

We are implored to ‘Protect the NHS’ when it is the function of the NHS to be the last line of defence for us.  Instead it has become the last place anyone wants to go.  Having scared everyone by the lockdown, vast numbers of existing and prospective patients have either been told not to attend, had their treatment cancelled or postponed, or have been unable to get diagnoses and tests they badly need.  The NHS isn’t dealing with them – it has been estimated that 18,000 extra deaths from cancer might result, currently around half of those recorded as dying from Coronavirus.

Not only has the NHS moved from defending us to us being exhorted to defend it, but the NHS is actually a threat, including to its own staff, over a hundred of whom have been estimated to have died from the virus.  While appointments and operations are cancelled, and Emergency Department attendances have collapsed, we are invited to acclaim the empty Nightingdale hospitals and empty beds as a success!  We are expected to recognise as successful an NHS that has become the site of infection and the one certain place to avoid unless you have absolutely no choice.

We are to applaud a service that has stopped being a National Health Service and become a National Covid Service following a transparently political agenda.  As I have written before, we are invited to ‘Protect the NHS’ when truthfully what we are invited to protect is the Government that has so denuded the NHS of resources for so long, and made such a mess of the current outbreak, that it simply cannot cope with doing its day job and deal with the virus at the same time.

By making sure that the NHS is able cope we ensure that the cuts and their effects are hidden despite the crisis; but rather than seeing this as a grotesque choice we have been forced to accept we have been invited to greet it as ‘success’, as Johnson so glibly and cynically put it.

And we do this because the NHS is one indivisible saintly entity without a bureaucracy that heads it, or an amoral Government that directs it, that unproblematically reflects the innate compassion of humanity – despite the evidence that doctors, nurses and purchasing managers have all complained that this organisation is failing its own staff never mind those it is there to serve.

The NHS, created to put an end to dependence on charitable provision, has become the biggest charity case in the country.  No doubt many people want to help, but the greatest help is not the individual resources many have had to fall back on but development of critical political consciousness.

We are supposed not to pay attention to the censorship of NHS staff who complain about their lack of protection but invited to applaud every week the protection these people are supposed to give us.  We are simply to accept that cancer patients will not get their treatment because on balance they would then have their immune system too compromised if they became infected, which is only the proper choice if we already accept that they cannot be protected.

We are to ignore that the NHS has taken PPE from elderly care homes while moving infected patients from hospitals into them: ‘Protect the NHS’ does not apparently mean Protecting Social Care.  Their clients’ deaths weren’t even counted in the headline daily total until very recently.

It becomes ‘pragmatic’ to downgrade the level of PPE required by NHS and care staff because the real scientific advice, unencumbered by Tory political pressure, would demand a level of PPE that the NHS cannot provide.   So the ‘objective’ scientific advisors objectively become conspirators in covering up Tory austerity, neglect and incompetence.

This is a surreal world of spin and lies and suppression of facts, fairness and free expression that has worked because of fear and ignorance and lack of accountability, and because we really do rely on the NHS.

The Government has not been held to account by the Labour ‘opposition’, has only begun to face some media criticism recently, and has benefited from the social isolation of social distancing.  This distancing includes distancing from reality, substituted by what Marxists call reification and alienation that amplifies the worst media influences and instincts to defer to authority.  This authority would have us rally round flags standing either side of Government spokesmen who substitute for the primacy of the people clichéd totems of Britishness and itself.  Real solidarity is replaced by calls to the police by snitches reporting neighbours who don’t get out to clap the NHS and its workers.

So, in Belfast we were told that 15,000 people would die but now only 1,500.  We have appointments and procedures cancelled and postponed and over 70 Covid-19 beds created, that last week saw only around half occupied, while a further 200 plus have been set up.  A hotel has been taken over but only one floor is so far used.  Never mind, this may be ready for the next surge in September – October, which will perhaps translate as another Johnsonian ‘success’.  Ring for a service and you can be told that resources are being devoted to the treatment of Covid-19.  Appear in the City Hospital and find yourself inside a ‘clean’ area that unfortunately has just had red signing put up to indicate Covid-19 areas as the green signs disappear.  In some locations work is hectic while in others activity has hardly been lower and there are only the rituals of infection control.  Similar stories could be told across the NHS but it is all socially and politically invisible.

The NHS is a bureaucracy as well as a service, but it has become a saintly institution which it is blasphemous to criticise, and one that the Government has wrapped round itself to shield itself.  In the Orwellian world of 2020 those who have spent ten years weakening it are holding up the banner of its defence against those whom it should serve and have suffered from the years of austerity inflicted on it.  Just as NHS staff have been blamed for PPE shortages so patients are held responsible for its inadequacy.

It is therefore not ‘Our’ NHS.  It doesn’t even belong to those who work in it.  Working people should be asking themselves how all this is the case and what it is we really should be defending.  Socialists should ask themselves just what a genuinely socialist service would look like.  The NHS hasn’t been hijacked, it’s simply following orders

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

The Irish and British responses to Coronavirus – different or just equally bad?

The British Government’s approach to the Coronavirus has been the subject of much, almost smug, criticism on this side of the Irish Sea.  In the North nationalists, and not only they, have called for an all-island approach and rejection of the British strategy of ‘herd immunity’.  Every British failure has been criticised and the response of the Irish Government lauded.

This was boosted enormously by the speech of acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, standing between the Tricolour and flag of the European Union, in bright contrast to the performance of Boris Johnson, sandwiched between two union flags.  The serious and statesmanlike approach of Varadkar was taken as so much more apposite than the unpredictable and sometimes incoherent ramblings of the Tory leader.  The two countries were adopting very different approaches and there was no doubt which was the better, even if Varadkar did a Churchill by saying ‘never will so many ask so much of so few’.

However, when all is said and done there is more than a little bollocks to such a view.   There are certainly more similarities than differences, starting with the flag waving as the cover for a host of failures.

Ostensibly, the Irish approach is to avoid exposure of the population and to reprise the South Korean model of testing, contact tracing and then appropriate isolation.  It has also taken more extreme measures to lockdown the population, for example by limiting outside exercise to within 2 kilometres of the home, and appearing to close down its economic activity even more drastically than the British.

The perception that this is a more responsible and sensible approach is one reason it has received popular support, although the same forces of compliance and deference apply in Ireland as much as in Britain.  Rallying round together in face of the enemy is a natural response even if it is conflated with rallying round a political leadership that has done nothing to deserve it.  And that is the most obvious similarity between the two countries.

But not only that.  The NHS has been subject to at least a decade of underfunding and misleadership that has led it to be woefully unprepared for any crisis, never mind this one. The current Fine Gael administration is the most openly right-wing and pro-free market of all the parties, which caused it to be decisively rejected at the last general election, not least because even in an economic boom the Irish health services are seen as a mess.

In February it was reported that 677,344 cases were on the waiting list with over 12,000 left on trolleys in January, the second worst month on record.  2019 was the worst year ever for hospital overcrowding as 118,367 patients were left without beds during the year.  This level of overcrowding showed that the Irish health system had insufficient capacity before the crisis and is utterly unprepared to deal with much greater demands now.  The ‘Irish Times’ reported on the front page of its 9 April edition that ‘emergency care doctors have expressed concern that the peak of the most critically ill coronavirus patients has yet to hit hospitals as existing intensive care units approach full capacity.’

As for the expected surge, the chief executive of Nursing Home Ireland has said that ‘nursing homes are effectively dealing with the surge that the hospitals were expecting.’  This has led to ‘clusters’ of the virus appearing in 137 nursing homes and other residential facilities, up from 4 on 21 March.  It is primarily the old who are dying, with the last reported median age of fatalities being 81.  The Irish State is proving no more capable of protecting its older citizens than the British.

The Irish health system is so bad the NHS is held up as an examplar, mainly because of the gross inequality in Ireland arising from health insurance that gives you greater access than public patients.

While, just like Britain, the policy is to protect the service, both states are near the bottom of hospital beds and ICU beds per capita.  The Government has hatched a deal to use private hospitals for public patients but this has led to protests from consultants that their private patients will not receive necessary treatment.

In both jurisdictions the Government has promised levels of testing that they have completely failed to deliver, which is possibly even more egregious in the case of Ireland given its so-called strategy. Johnson and his Government have gone from promising 250,000 tests a day, to promises of 100,000 by the end of the month (made at the start of it), while on 8 April Public Health England was reporting a testing capacity of 14,000.

In Ireland the Minister of Health promised 15,000 tests per day on March 19, while two weeks later the total was 1,500.  Almost a week after that, Dr Jack Lambert from the Mater Hospital in Dublin was asking ‘how can you talk about flattening the curve where you’re testing such small numbers of people and people are queuing up to get testing?’

In nursing homes some tests have taken 10 days or more for results to come through.  There are also reports of delays in tracing people having contact with those testing positive, making a total nonsense of the supposed strategy. Never mind, the Irish Minister of Health has promised action by the end of the month as well.

Shortages of Personal Protection Equipment exist in Ireland just as they exist in Britain, exposing health and care workers to the virus and onward transmission to the patients, clients and residents they care for.  Again, the chief executive of Nursing Home Ireland has said that nursing homes are suffering severe shortages, with just 51 receiving enough, and then only for three days normal usage, while 63 others are still waiting for a delivery.  Promises made by the Minister of Health to the sector have not been delivered.  Not that hospitals have all they need, St Vincent’s in Dublin has warned that it is facing ‘considerable difficulty’ in sourcing masks, and that the ‘ongoing availability of masks cannot be guaranteed’.

In Britain there are numerous reports of threats to NHS staff who go to the media to explain the consequences of Government failure.  Weekly clapping on behalf of NHS workers is evidence of widespread support for the service, but the silencing of NHS workers demonstrates that the NHS is not ‘our’ NHS; it is owned, run and controlled by the same state that has so abysmally failed to protect its own workers.  Were the NHS really an example of socialism we would not have its workers afraid to speak out – they would own, run, and control it and be able to speak openly.

In their place we have daily press conferences, where questions routinely don’t get answered, including by the experts, while data is misleading – the figures of those infected are next to worthless and the total number dying isn’t even accurate.  But at least in Britain they have daily press conferences where questions are asked, and there is a pretence at answering; the Irish Government has distinguished itself by its even greater secrecy, opposition to accountability or examination of its policies.  Instead, as everywhere else, moral commands induce moral outrage as a substitute for critical engagement.

Even that voice of the restrained and sober middle class, ‘The Irish Times’, has editorialised on the difficulty of obtaining information, e.g. on waiting times for test samples, on the backlog of tests, the state’s stock of protective equipment, the real-time state of ICUs, and how the virus is interacting with other conditions.  It has noted the ‘discomfort with scrutiny’ and Ministers’ requests that questions be sent in advance.

This follows the Executive’s attempt to shut down debate in the Dail, which was rejected.  This, from a Government without a mandate, that has shut down large parts of the economy sending unemployment rocketing; instituted strict limits on free movement, and introduced draconian measures that give the Garda the power to arrest you for refusing to obey instructions or to give your name and address.

We are informed that the decisive intervention that ensured the Garda got such powers was the Garda itself, through the Commissioner Drew Harris, ex of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Police Service of Northern Ireland, recalling for me that the date of birth question was always the one that refusal to answer might lead you to being lifted by the RUC.

We can see that the Irish State has done nothing to warrant either the praise or trust it has received.  Yet it cannot hide forever from the inadequacies of the health system for which it is responsible. It will also not be able to make good its promise that the cost of shutting down the economy and temporarily supporting incomes  will not lead to austerity further down the line.  This is simply a lie.

At the same time as coronavirus has consumed attention, the politicians and media have been obsessing over the formation of a new Government, with the prospect of a coalition between the two reactionary civil war parties, ruled out so categorically, now looking more likely.  The complaint of both is that no other Party wants to join them, such is the distrust.  Except for Sinn Fein, which says a lot about all three.

However, rather than the problem being lack of a Government, the problem is lack of an opposition.  The trade union movement is disarmed because of state subsidies for those affected by unemployment although this is unsustainable and will not be sustained.  The left is in thrall to massive state intervention, which it talks and acts as if is some sort of socialism, when it is not.  The authoritarian measures are opposed but not vehemently because these have not yet become unpopular.  Not for the first time the potential to present an alternative is lost, because no alternative is presented.

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

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.