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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluded

Back to part 4

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

Civil rights and socialist strategy 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

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

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

shankill road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for victor arbuckle ruc

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

– – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to part 13

Forward to part 15

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement 2 – towards a United Ireland?

While the EU may not have been a main actor to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) or a party to it, and not seen at the time as particularly important to it, this does not thereby mean that Brexit and the creation of a hard border is unimportant.

As I have said before, the creation of a hard border matters not so much because of what happens at the border itself, and the creation of any border controls and infrastructure this will involve, but what it means for what happens behind the border. This does not mean the symbolism and real effects to cross border traffic are unimportant; they will be the visible sign of the stresses that Brexit will impose across Ireland.  It is these stresses that are important and are doubly important because the GFA is not working.  If the GFA was working then there would be less concern that Brexit would destabilise politics in the North.

No part of the UK will suffer as much economic damage from Brexit as Northern Ireland.  Cross border trade, especially of agricultural products will be very badly hit.  In September 2017 British officials told their opposite EU Brexit negotiators that there were 156 distinct areas of North-South cross-border cooperation, and a lot of these depended on EU law.  A no-deal Brexit would leave many without legal basis and unable to function, causing dislocation to everything from health service delivery to the delivery of electricity across the border.

This would not breach the Good Friday Agreement but would signal big problems not just for those along the border seeking the nearest effective health care but for economic growth and employment both North and South.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to someone working in a lamb feed business who predicted that freely imported New Zealand lamb could easily put the factory she works in out of business. Costs to the business have already risen because of Brexit.  The alternative, now mooted by the Tories, of the continuation of tariffs has its own host of problems.  The large state sector in the North will suffer from the decline in tax receipts consequent on the reduction in economic growth.

Some companies based in Northern Ireland have already made advanced plans to move south and others will follow. The largest private sector employer is Bombardier, which makes wings for Airbus.  The Airbus out-going CEO has warned of fierce competition from other countries for the work carried out in the UK even before Brexit has happened. The decline in the value of sterling will hit living standards as much as anywhere else in the UK while being at the end of many supply chains may mean it will hit more.

The move by Britain to exit the EU will leave it a supplicant to other more powerful forces, if it does not otherwise become an arms’ length appendage of the EU.  These forces, such as the US, will be rivals of the EU and in any conflict over trade etc., or geopolitical events, will see them rub up against each other, just as now the controversy over the backstop is a reflection of the border between the EU and the UK.

This will not lead to cross-border cooperation but to a border upon which various frictions can be played out.  In this sense, Brexit will undermine the relationship between Britain and the Irish State, which the GFA signalled was in many ways aligned.  The first and most obvious friction to arise may be negotiation of a new free trade deal between the EU and the UK after Brexit.

These economic effects will therefore reverberate into political ones.  None of the effects of Brexit will have any democratic legitimacy as 56 per cent in Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU.  Within the North the DUP will be seen as the architects of the disaster.  The majority of unionists voted for Brexit while the vast majority of nationalists voted to Remain.

Avoidance of the Brexit divide mirroring and strengthening the sectarian divide will be difficult.  The British nationalist and reactionary imperialist prejudices that motivated Brexit are an important part of unionist ideology

So to some extent avoidance will depend on the estimated one third of unionists who voted to Remain, although not only on them.  There are an increasing number of people in the North who don’t identify as Protestant or Catholic, although it is not possible to say that they don’t therefore have a view on the border.  It is also obvious that Catholic nationalists can also play a more progressive or more reactionary role – the demand for a United Ireland is historically a progressive one that socialist should support but, like many historical tasks, it can be solved in either a progressive or a reactionary fashion and socialists cannot be indifferent to these alternatives.

Only the most ignorant could believe that any greater hardship following Brexit will overcome sectarian consciousness and serve to develop class consciousness.  Still less is this the case if sectarian division is reinforced by its effects.  It is therefore extraordinary that the small socialist movement has mostly ruled itself out of any progressive role by supporting the Brexit that they simultaneously worry will increase sectarian division.  Everyone can make a mistake but doubling down on it, as they have, makes their position inexcusable.

So this brings us to the second part of the argument, that Brexit creates the grounds for a vote for a united Ireland.

If the same development of consciousness in the North of Ireland that has taken place in Britain were now occurring then this might be a possibility; that is one where a wide section of the population has developed a Remain political identity that rivals and exceeds that of traditional party identity (which in the North largely reflects the sectarian divide). But this is not the case.

It is not the case, for example, that most unionist Remainers will drop their unionism for the sake of support for remaining in the EU and a united Ireland, even if Brexit proves to be economically disastrous.  Unionism will be weakened and some may revise their unionism, but not in enough numbers to change the current arithmetic of a majority in the North in favour of partition.  Much more likely is that the economic damage inflicted by Brexit will make middle class nationalists more fervent supporters of a united Ireland, which is currently muted by many of their number having a relatively comfortable standard of living, while also no longer subject to the same indignities arising from Protestant sectarianism that existed in the past.

But this will not produce a majority vote for a united Ireland.  There is not yet a Catholic majority in the North of Ireland, even were all these politically nationalist and committed to a united Ireland, which is not the case.  Demographics’ is not politics.  So, while the religious split was 65% Protestant and 35% Catholic when the Northern State was set up, and it is now 48% and 45%, respectively, this does not suggest a majority for a united Ireland, Brexit or no Brexit.

What there is, is a growing Catholic population, which labour force statistics show has grown to almost equal that of Protestants in the workforce, i.e. not just among the very young.  The latest Labour Force Survey has shown that the population aged 16 and over defined as Protestant has declined by 14 percentage points since 1990 from 56% to 42%, while the number of working age Catholics has increased from 38% to 41%. The remaining 17% define themselves as ‘other/non-determined’ an increase from 6% in 1990.  While population forecasts are unreliable, it is argued that Catholics will outnumber Protestants in the population in 5 to 10 years time, while it is more obvious that those not defining themselves as either will form the pivot.

This population shift has many social and political ramifications that are already playing out. In 1992, 69% of working age Protestants and 54% of Catholics were in employment, but by 2017 the respective figures were 70% and 67%.  In 1992 76% of working-age Protestants were economically active (as opposed to in employment) while the percentage of Catholics was 66%.  By 2017 the respective figures were 73% and 70%.

The politically totemic figures on religious unemployment, so often in the past held up as evidence of sectarian discrimination, have moved from a 9% unemployment level for Protestants and 18% for Catholics in 1990 to 4% for both in 2017.

A state cannot function efficiently on the political exclusion of a minority this size, especially one repeatedly predicted to become a majority.  The GFA created a political framework that, it was hoped by its architects, would allow a fair balance of political power between two separate populations defined by sectarian identity, but this identity inevitably entails sectarian competition, which accounts for the political instability that Brexit will only accentuate.

But once again it has to be noted that Brexit hasn’t created the problem of sectarian competition and political paralysis.  Brexit is threatening because the GFA isn’t working and cannot work to deliver a ‘fair’ balance of power between sectarian blocs, when these blocs exist only in opposition to each other.

What might reasonably be expected is that the effects of Brexit are widely enough recognised to be the fault of Brexit and that those that supported it lose influence and power.  This might also entail growing recognition of British decline and the benefits of unity with a state still in the EU.

This would ally with parallel processes that have also become obvious.  Traditional Protestant opposition to a united Ireland has portrayed itself as opposition to ‘Rome rule’, while the development of a more secular consciousness in the south of Ireland has shown that for many this ‘Rome rule’ claim was only a cover for their own sectarianism.  It is also however the case that the growth of secular consciousness, and especially the demand for abortion and gay rights, that might feed into opposition to the Northern State as presently constituted, does not threaten it.  Most supporters of such rights fully expect them to be delivered eventually within the Northern State.

Much has been made of opinion polls that show the potential for a majority for a united Ireland arising from Brexit, and especially from a no-deal Brexit.  But this often appears to be selecting the results that one likes and ignoring others.  The fact that those defining themselves as Unionist have begun to score less than 50% in elections has also been hailed as a harbinger of the near-future, ignoring that the majority of the 11% ‘others’, that is not nationalists, have favoured remaining in the UK.

The ‘Irish Times’ reported last October that the five most recent opinion polls showed support for the North staying in the UK ranging from 45% to 55% and averaging 50%.  And it is certainly true that more people think that Brexit will make a united Ireland more likely.   A poll by RTE and BBC reported in November showed that 62% of those polled believed this.

Other recent polls are not so kind to the view that there is an imminent majority for a united Ireland. A MORI poll for academics at Queens University Belfast found just 21% would vote for Irish unity after Brexit.  A second poll, commissioned by Policy Exchange across the UK, found support for membership of the UK at 58%, although the sample size for Northern Ireland was only 500. A poll by LucidTalk reported in October found that 33.7% would vote for a united Ireland if a referendum was called immediately.

It would appear that the company carrying out the polling affects the result, with Ipsos MORI showing lower figures in favour of Irish unity compared to LucidTalk. But these MORI polls also show an increase in support for Irish unity, if not yet anywhere near a majority, with those in these polls in favour of Irish unity increasing from 21% in 2013, to 26% in 2016 and 30% in 2018.

So what we are seeing is the development of objective conditions which assist the move to a united Ireland, and on a progressive basis, but which needs to develop much further for it to give rise to a more immediate threat to the state created for sectarian reasons and defined by its sectarian composition.

A progressive solution requires a conscious political movement that gives more coherent expression to these progressive developments and also fights sectarianism.  This means more than simply pronouncing its absence from its ranks.  It means not trying to accommodate, manage or conciliate sectarianism but consciously fighting it and those who practice it.  The victory of democratic, never mind socialist, politics necessarily entails the defeat of all the sectarian forces, and particularly means the defeat of unionism and loyalism.

As the alliance of the DUP with the Tories once again shows, and even Corbyn’s expression of concern at the unionist position also illustrates, this includes implacable opposition to the divisiveness of British rule. While claiming disinterest the British state has routinely placated the most extreme loyalism, and when threatened actively supported and organised it.

So it is not that Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement so much as the disintegration of the Agreement makes Brexit a threat to political stability.  Were the institutions of the GFA working as they were intended Brexit would not present the threat that it does, which will persist in undermining the Northern State beyond any immediate shock.

Whether this threat to the State leads to democratic change or reactionary sectarian conflict, or rather whether democratic change overcomes sectarian conflict, will depend to some exent on how progressive forces organise and around what political programme. In this regard a future post will look at whether socialists should support demands for a border poll.

It must be admitted however that the existing weakness of the working class as an independent political actor inside the North means that socialists are at the stage of seeking to develop independent working class politics rather than realistically presenting these as an immediate solution to sectarian and political division.  This political division includes the bystander status which the working class in the South has become accustomed to taking when it comes to the political development of the movement in the North.

Brexit – the dogs that barked and those that didn’t

The Open Britain Campaign has listed seven promises that the Tory Government has broken in its welcome to the new draft of the Agreement for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. These are:

  1.  A transition period will be about ‘implementing’ the future relationship, not negotiating it
  2.  The UK will not pay money to the EU after March 2019
  3.  The UK will not have to abide by EU rules during transition
  4.  The UK will ‘take back control’ of fisheries policy
  5.  Free movement will end in March 2019
  6.  The UK will have new trade deals ready to come into force on 29 March 2019
  7.  The implementation period would last for two years and should not be time limited

These however are not even the biggest.  The most significant is the idea that Britain would take back control, beginning in the negotiations, at the commencement of which the importance of the UK to the EU economy would see the EU rush to agree a comprehensive deal that would suit the UK.  Now, one explanation how trade arrangements would work after Brexit includes open borders without any checks – about as far from taking control as you can imagine.

And this is not a fringe option to be considered as a fall back in the event of a no-deal.   For the only way to avoid a hard border inside Ireland and avoid a sea border between the island of Ireland and Britain is just such an arrangement.

The problems with this are not limited to those quoted in the last link to a BBC report – that even if the British did not have checks the EU would; and that the British would be compelled to let all goods flow without checks in order to be in compliance with WTO requirements that there could be no discrimination in favour of goods from or to the EU.

Already the part-time negotiator David Davis has stated that “we agree on the need to inckude legal text detailing the ‘backstop’ solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement is acceptable to both sides.  But it remains our intention to achieve a partnership that is so close as to not require specific measures in relation to Northern Ireland, and therefore we will engage on the detail on all scenarios set out in the joint report.”

The problem is that the British Government proposals, as set out in the last May speech have already been rejected – there can be no mutual recognition of UK and EU standards, such that all trade can proceed in the frictionless way that now currently takes place.  Any mutual recognition that the EU would agree to would be so limited as to make a border structure inevitable and significant.

There is no ‘technical’ solution that gets round the fact that the UK wants out of the Single Market (and Customs Union); mutual recognition as a general substitute for either is cherry picking on an industrial scale and ruled out, already by the EU, many times.

That this is the rationale for the Tory claim that they can avoid both a hard border inside Ireland and at the Irish Sea proves that the EU insertion of the “third option” – of full regulatory alignment of rules between the Northern and Southern Irish states – will come to pass.

Unless the British renege on their agreement.  Not unheard of, it might be said.  I came across the following on one web site – “North’s first rule of politics comes to mind: never trust a Tory. The second rule is: always obey the first.”  As in this little ditty – “Never trust a Tory, they’ll betray you when it matters / They will scramble to the top and then they’ll kick away the ladder, hinny / Never trust a Tory, or a Tory in disguise, You can see it when you look them in the eye”.  This is why EU figures are also stating that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

The British Government has hailed the draft Withdrawal agreement as a great step forward because it says it allows it a transitional period within which they can negotiate their own trade deals.  This is not even a case of kicking the can down the road, as in the sense that the cliff-edge of leave is simply postponed, because the reality of leaving will still kick in before that, as it is already doing, and the failure to agree better trade deals than have been, or can be, achieved by the EU will become clearer.  It is generally agreed that no substantive deals can be negotiated within two years, and the Tories haven’t even got that long.

The prospect of Northern Ireland within the regulatory framework of the EU would be a bitter pill for the DUP and many unionists in general to swallow.  They have not barked opposition because they are possibly even more deluded that the Tory Brexiteers, although also more paranoid, so more likely to smell betrayal.

The Tory Brexiteers meanwhile are running out of justification, fabricated or not, for leaving the EU.  They also aren’t barking very loudly, and now simply want out, willing to accept more and more acts of capitulation until they get it.  As if they could then turn round when they’re out and implement their ultimate agenda of a deregulated dystopia on the edge of Europe.  Neither they nor the DUP have really appreciated that, in or out, the UK will remain under the shadow of the EU and subject to its more powerful economic interests, to a greater or lesser extent.

Just as Mays’ list of special arrangements she wants from the EU in a final deal beg the question, why is the UK leaving?, so will the period of transition make more obvious the rotten prospects that exit promises.

Even the deal on offer from the EU is far from any panacea.  The inclusion of Northern Ireland within the EU regulatory framework will mean an EU/UK border at the Irish sea, and more trade from the Irish State goes over it than across the land border inside the island.  The draft deal does not therefore solve the problems created by Brexit for Dublin.  Again, unless the British state capitulates further, and proves that a Tory plan for no border controls will actually work (which can only arise if they agree to membership of the Single Market and Customs Union) there is going to be a hard border somewhere.

For unionism in Northern Ireland the prospect of membership of the EU trading arrangements while the rest of the UK is excluded, is not in principle totally unacceptable, as they are quite happy to do things differently on many issues, such as abortion rights for women and gay marriage.  The real problem with the EU deal is that the Northern State will become more and more different from the rest of the UK as the EU develops.  This is not a static solution but a dynamic one in which their artificial majority is no longer potentially always a veto on any issue they decide to make a question of their sectarian identity.

The draft Withdrawal Agreement states that “authorities of the United Kingdom shall not act as leading authority for risk assessments, examinations, approvals and authorisations procedures provided for in Union law made applicable by this Protocol.”  So not only will the UK (as Northern Ireland) have to accept and implement EU law, in all those North-South bodies, it is the Southern authority that shall take the lead and the Northern authority will have to follow.

Of course, if one is a simple-minded Irish nationalist this is not a problem.  But this assumes that what is good for the Southern State is good for the population of Northern Ireland (and for the population of Southern Ireland as well for that matter).

So, for example, in the single electricity market, mentioned in Article six of the agreement, it could well be that the population of Northern Ireland will just have to accept the leadership of the Southern State, which dominates the electricity industry through its state-owned companies.  In the South this has led to ordinary domestic electricity customers paying higher charges than business, which involves yet another clear subsidy to multinationals and an effective tax on working people for the benefit of capital as a whole.

That this will cause aggravation amongst unionists will hardly come as a surprise to anyone.  However, a lot of the declaration of concern about a hard border endangering the peace process misses the point.  Where this peace process the success it is claimed by the same people fretting about its future there would be little concern about changed customs and trading arrangements.  What makes the border, and what happens at it, important is not so much the symbolic arrangements that may apply there, but the fact that behind it the peace process is failing, as the lack of an agreed Executive at Stormont makes abundantly clear.  Additional strain on the process is therefore widely considered unwelcome.

Maybe this is why Article 13 of the draft Withdrawal Agreement on ‘Safeguards’ is included, which states that “if the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties liable to persist, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate measures.”  In other words, if civil unrest erupts again the British State will be called upon to assert its control, perhaps in the customary way it has done so in the past.

As we have noted, the Tories have celebrated the latest EU document as a success even though they have retreated on issue after issue.  Even the hard Brexiteers have been relatively quiet, complaining mostly about the fishing industry, or about ‘vassal’ status during the transition (how ironic),yet not so quiet as that other principled opposition – the supporters of Lexit on the left.

These people discounted the reactionary Brexit campaign in their support for leaving the EU, and have discounted all the reactionary political developments we have witnessed since in order to confirm their position.  So why, if getting out of the EU is so important that it over-rides all this, are they not now condemning the sell-out Tories for prolonging UK membership, or denouncing their capitulation to condition after condition of EU membership that the Tories want to continue after the transition period?

The reason for this is their entirely light-minded and totally unreflective attitude to politics that has substituted protest for alternative and national reformism for working class politics.  These supporters of Lexit could learn a lot from their failure to get this right but it seems they have no desire to do so.

This, however, is much less important than the attitude of the leadership of the Labour Party, which it would appear thinks the reactionary consequences of Brexit, including under-cutting the basis of its social-democratic programme, are of limited consequence.  The most I have heard argued is that the Party should call for a vote on the eventual deal.  But this is meaningless outside fighting for an alternative and a principled campaign against what is clearly a reactionary decision with reactionary consequences.  On this, some dogs should be barking!

Socialists and the elections in the North of Ireland – part 2

History has decisively proved that simple removal of Stormont did not entail a move to a united Ireland and that no such move was possible within the North itself.  The downfall of Stormont left a strategic gap that was filled by IRA claims that it could drive the British out of Ireland by sheer will and its armed struggle.

From then on, the struggle could go nowhere with such a view and nowhere is where it went.  While civil rights protest, and wider Catholic grievance and mobilization could bring Stormont down it could not implement its own solution while a struggle was waged solely in the North, even if it enjoyed Southern sympathy.  Only within a wider social movement for change could a progressive solution be imposed against unionist and British state opposition but this is still not even yet a practical proposition.

In terms of the reformability of the North it must also be obvious that the Stormont of today is not the Stormont of 1972.  The idea that Catholics and nationalists could be in office was incredible in 1972 yet today Sinn Fein is in office.  It is therefore equally obvious that you cannot re-run the story line again and expect the downfall of Stormont to be the same step forward that it was in 1972, even if the first time this step forward made evident the crisis in perspective for the next step.

Today Catholics and nationalists are not demanding the downfall of Stormont but that Sinn Fein stick it up to the unionists and demand equality within it.  Unfortunately, the equality demanded is not that of civil rights, which started the whole struggle off, but of communal sectarian rights which socialists must oppose.

The nature of the counter-revolution in Northern Ireland (if it can be put that way) is that the struggle for unity around civil rights has been corrupted to one of sectarian rights with most people oblivious to the difference.  Calls for a Workers’ Republic in such a situation takes us no step forward in the real world unless it signals not an end-point but a process to get us there – just as for Marx communism was not a state of things but a movement that abolished the present state of things.*  So what then is this movement given today’s conditions and circumstances and how will it abolish the present state of things from the premises currently given?

Despite the experience of incompetence, corruption and general venality there is little demand for the downfall of Stormont except from those who say they prefer Direct rule from a British state with a reputation for some minimal probity and competence (that will suffer greatly from Brexit).  The only other constituency is that which has been dismissed as dissident republicanism, which despite decades of Provisional betrayal of the traditional republican programme cannot convince anyone, including itself, that it can do anything other than repeat the failure of the Provos.

The task of socialists in elections therefore is to begin, and we really are only at the beginning, to break down the sectarian solidarity, not by thinking we could simply remove the mock-Parliament that oversees it but by building a movement that goes through Stormont in order to destroy it.  If this much experience of sectarian corruption and its baleful effects that we have endured is not enough to expose it and the uselessness to workers of sectarianism then it is unfortunately the case that we need to experience more of it, and we will, and crucially to have a socialist presence that can expose it and present a concrete alternative.  And by concrete I obviously mean more than slogans – slogans are easy and if sectarian division was amenable to easy slogans we wouldn’t still be faced by its dominance.

So pretending that workers are already virtually united is as barren as the view that, even though they aren’t, a direct struggle for state power and creation of their own Republic is a concrete alternative.  If it is not, then socialists are clearly fighting to build a working class movement not win this movement to revolutionary politics as if this were Russia 1917 or Germany 1918 or Spain in the 1930s.  If we are faced with the task of building this labour movement then we can only be in the position of seeking reforms since only the working class through its mass movement can achieve a social revolution.

There are two questions to consider at this point as a possible objection to what I have just said.  First, while social revolution can only be carried out by the working class acting as a class, political revolutions that do not require the overthrow of capitalism obviously can be carried out by movements that aren’t socialist. Most political revolutions of the last couple of hundred years have not been working class or socialist.  Such non-socialist revolutions can be progressive if they place the working class in a better position to fight for its own interests, if for example they increase the scope and capacity for workers to organise.

For a number of reasons a political revolution that creates an independent Irish democratic Republic (that is still capitalist) is unlikely to happen.  First, no significant class or political force is interested in carrying it out and the same applies to the international configuration of classes and forces that will be decisive for political and social change in Ireland.  Those who think that struggle for such a democratic revolution will travel towards a socialist one in some version of revolution that keeps going are wrong.  The social revolution is not something the working class will stumble upon in the course of seeking something much more limited.

The second point is that fighting to create an independent working class movement that fights for reforms that are designed primarily to strengthen itself is itself a revolutionary approach.  What is reformist is not seeking to strengthen the working class movement through smaller or greater steps or leaps but rather to seek to advance its cause through reliance on the capitalist state through nationalisation or other state intervention, or confusing socialism with left-wing MPs and TDs in or out of governmental office.

All this is very general and presents the socialist alternative at a very high level of principles which should guide more concrete and specific proposals.  However, even at this high level it is already clear that this approach differs from that practiced by the Irish left.

To make this alternative more specific is not a question of a set of proposals that guarantee growth of the left.  Ultimately a party of the working class cannot rise any higher than the working class itself.  The working class party is only such if it is part of the working class, yet both preponderant left approaches are not about how this working class can be made stronger but assume that it just has to be led differently.

But the fact that working people in the North of Ireland vote massively for sectarian based parties is not simply a question of leadership but reflects the divisions in society which mean that class cleavage is not decisive to the everyday experience that shapes their political consciousness. How this is changed is the problem and only the self-activity of working people themselves is capable of accomplishing this task – the emancipation of the working class is a task for the working class itself and socialists can only help to lead such a process by being leaders in rebuilding the labour movement to become the political representative of the class as a whole.

Since elections in themselves are a small part of working class experience, though play a rather larger role in their experience of politics, it is outside elections that the working class alternative will be built.  In elections, you only reap what you have sown.  As Engels put it “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class.   It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state.”  In other words, it will not be the road to socialism, and the generally pitiful votes for self-declared socialist candidates shows how far to maturity it has to go.  Facing this reality is the first step to changing it.  Pretending that either it is anything other than badly divided or that it can be presented with the task of overthrowing the state is to fail to take that step.

 

*“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

Back to part 1

See also here

Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  Obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2