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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluded

Back to part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 7

Forward to part 9

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 1

anti-water-charges-campaigns-protests-4-390x285I was sitting in a small café at 12 o’clock having a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, with customers at only two other tables.  A group of four elderly people were talking at one while three middle aged men were talking at the other.  Both were discussing the water charges, their opposition to them and the march they were going to join in one hour’s time.

I joined a feeder march at Pearse Street that went up Dame Street, up to York Street, where it collected some more supporters, and then went round to St Stephen’s Green to stop  a few minutes outside the Dail to tell the Government that they “could stick their water meters up their arse”.  Even the Guards on duty outside had a smirk.  The thousand or so then took off to join the main rally outside the GPO in O’Connell Street where a number of other marches converged.

The demonstration was not as large as that of a few weeks before, which was estimated as 100,000, but this time there were dozens of other marches being held right across the State in cities and towns big and small.  Estimates are that in total the numbers were greater – 150,000.

On 11 October the apparently sudden scale of the opposition to water charges was reinforced by the victory in the Dublin by-election of the Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, who defeated the firm favourite from Sinn Fein because that party had done a little too much talking out of both sides of its mouth and was seen as insufficiently opposed to the charges.

Sinn Fein posters were in evidence on the march on Saturday and it was noticeable that flags and banners from other republican groups were also in evidence.  The left groups were more peripheral than is usual in such marches and I didn’t see one trade union banner, although I could easily have missed it.

The demonstration was overwhelmingly working class, composed of what many on the left call ‘ordinary people’, although I’ve never considered myself extraordinary for example.  The other noticeable thing was the folk songs sung from the stage, the references to James Connolly and 1916 and the general referencing to Ireland’s rebel history.  It is as if, at least sections of the Irish working class go to sleep for a few years and that when they periodically wake up they look back to their greatest struggles and leaders, when their intervention into Irish history appeared to promise a new future. That hasn’t really been the case for a long time, at least in the South.  A Northern banner in solidarity might have highlighted the unfinished business.

While I was in the café I was reading ‘The Irish Times’ and in particular an article by Eamonn McCann entitled ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’.  I’m sure he didn’t write the headline so it is no criticism of him to point out that demonstrations in Dublin of 100,000 against austerity have already taken place over the last five years or so.  They were organised by the trade union movement and the demonstrators were betrayed by the leaders of that same movement, as McCann alluded to in his article.

So what makes this movement different, if it is?  Firstly there is a view that it could succeed, in fact an argument can be made that it is already succeeding.  The Government parties have already responded by concessions in the budget to lessen the impact of the charges and did so in such a hurry they messed it up.   The newspapers, radio and television news are full of reports of the panicked reaction by Government politicians, especially with an election around the corner; hundreds of thousands of registration forms sent by the new Irish Water company have not been returned and the deadline for returning them has been extended to the end of the month.

Opinion polls confirm the unpopularity of the charge and the effect of this on the popularity of the Governing parties.  Labour is already a dead duck and Fine Gael support has fallen while support for Sinn Fein and ‘independents’ has grown.  The new company is particularly disliked because of the millions of Euros being spent on consultants for a service the state has been providing for years (the same thing happened in the North when Northern Ireland Water was created).  Bonuses are also to be paid to Irish Water staff with those at the top getting much larger amounts than those at the bottom, with the added insult from the company that they continue to peddle the line that they aren’t really bonuses.

Irish workers facing these costs believe that they are already paying for water so in effect they are being asked to pay twice and for huge management consultant bills and bonuses on top.

But previous, more outrageous decisions have failed to generate resistance that actually looks like it might win.  The decision to bail out the banks, costing over €64 billion, dwarfs the water charges in scale, with bankers hardly more popular than the Executives of Irish Water – and bankers’ bonuses have certainly been larger.   So what has changed?

Going back to Eamonn McCann’s article in ‘The Irish Times’:  he says that paying for a substance so natural sparks a particular anger.  But this isn’t really the case – in the café one guy was saying that he would be prepared to pay for water, but not twice and not for the consultants and bonuses.  This, I think, is the widespread view.  People are aware that they have to pay for water and sewerage services and they know this because it is obvious.

The headline over the article by Eamonn McCann in ‘The Irish Times’ said ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’; and that is the main reason for the resistance – it is one step too far.  As one of the leaflets given out at the demonstration put it -“No more.”

The whole austerity offensive, austerity budget after austerity budget, the state effectively bankrupt, posed the question of how to resist – what to do?  And resistance had to have some idea of an overall alternative.  The Irish working class didn’t know what such an alternative would be and didn’t buy the one sold by most of the Left.  I have examined this alternative in a series of earlier posts, for example here, here and here.

On the other hand workers are now being told that economic growth is not only on the way but has actually arrived.  Unemployment has fallen and tax cuts are promised while cuts in services will end.  Things look like they may have bottomed out.  They don’t think that they need to pay this unfair bill and what’s more they think that there is something very practical that they can do to stop it.

They won’t get their water turned off if they don’t pay.  As a commercial semi-state company the money can’t be taken off them through deductions to their salaries and wages.  Sure there is the possibility of court cases but cases against hundreds of thousands?  Even reduction of water pressure to the home is not so easily achieved and possible to prevent with direct, mass action.  In other words it is beatable and the disarray of the Government has demonstrated to many that it can be beaten.

To be continued