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the four preconditions for an end to the IRA campaign was abolition of repressive legislation, British troops to be withdrawn, release of all political prisoners and full support for civil rights.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

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

From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ 5 – those who came before

A number of initiatives preceded the creation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the organisation itself never united all civil rights activists and organisations within its ranks or even under its umbrella.  This demonstrated that the small numbers involved in each of these initiatives reflected something deeper in the transformation of Northern society.

Their ultimate success in bringing this agenda to the fore should not in the first place be credited to this or that form of organisation, important no doubt that this was, but to this underlying reality, which these organisations reflected and then in turn reflected upon society.  Looked at in this way it was the underlying material circumstances that created the opportunity to mobilise the Catholic population around a demand for civil rights and which ultimately selected the organisations that would best reflect their existing political consciousness and the extent to which it developed, or did not develop, during this period.

None of these initiatives, even the republican one that most directly led to the creation of NICRA, envisaged civil rights to be a means of doing anything other than reform the Northern State, allowing the development of what they variously considered to be normal politics.  There was no republican conspiracy and the influence of the Communist Party, which played an important initial role, was invariably a moderating one, quite contrary to Unionist red scare stories.

An important precursor and later component was the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), which began in Dungannon and was made up of impeccably middle class Catholic professionals. It developed from earlier activity around housing grievances by the Homeless Citizens’ League (HCL) set up in 1963. The HCL publicised the unfair allocation of housing, which a few years later was to be the issue sparking the first civil rights march.  Its main demands were for a points system for housing allocation and an end to residential segregation, its work helping to expose the deal between local Unionist and Nationalist politicians on sectarian housing allocation.

It was inspired, as so many civil rights activists were, by the demand for civil rights in the US, devoting itself to publicity and lobbying.  Its novelty related more to its being a break from the ineffectual Nationalist Party, and being avowedly non-sectarian, even if its membership was made up entirely of Catholic professionals, the ‘middle-class do-gooders’ later criticised by Bernadette Devlin. Launched in January 1964 in the Wellington Park hotel in Belfast, after four years of assiduously collecting information and publishing the facts about discrimination it had become no more than an irritation to the Unionist Government.

An important issue for it and all subsequent campaigns (even that of the IRA) was to break the convention at Westminster of non-intervention in Northern Ireland affairs, which was for the devolved Stormont parliament only, and appealing to public opinion in Britain and to Westminster.  Unlike the US, appealing for an end of discrimination through the courts was unpromising and campaigners were never going to get a majority at Stormont.

Of course, in Ireland there was the rest of the Irish people in the Southern State but as we have said, the Dublin political establishment wasn’t interested in challenging the Northern State but was concerned first with removing any threat to its own state’s stability, which might arise from any threat to that of the Northern state.  Northern nationalist politicians were more interested in defending their own position as political leaders of the local Catholic population than creating an avowedly non-sectarian organisation or campaign.

The Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU), launched in London in1965, was a London-based campaign based mainly in the British Labour Party, which gave the CSJ an audience in Britain. It included in its objectives the ending of discrimination in Northern Ireland and arguing for the necessity and ability of Westminster to intervene in Northern Ireland affairs against any unionist prerogatives.

The British Government was loath to intervene and limited itself at most to putting pressure on the Unionist leadership to achieve its objectives.  Like the Irish State, it sought stability and this relied firstly on the stability of the unionist regime.  The CDU could not progress delivery of civil rights because this was never a concern of the British State or the various Governments that sat on top of it, and when it did become one, the question of unionist stability became more important as a result. Without the explosion in October 1968 on the occasion of the civil rights march in Derry it is likely that the CSU would have disappeared.

While middle class professionals sought support from within the British Labour party, in May 1965 Belfast Trades Council held a meeting against discrimination attended by trade union representatives, the NILP and CSJ. It did not however lead to any permanent organisation.

It has been argued later by one socialist tendency that ‘The Labour and Trade Union Movement could have . . . brought Catholic and Protestant workers together around this issue [civil rights], but only if class demands had been raised. Instead of the dividing up of poverty they could have led a struggle for houses for all, for jobs for all and for a living wage for all workers.’

Aside from the political weakness of the labour movement in the North of Ireland due to the strength of sectarianism, which makes this assertion very doubtful, it is clear that the question of civil rights was raised inside it and it was always subordinated to the usual economist demands of the movement, just as this tendency wanted.

It was not therefore the case that civil rights was pushed to the exclusion of, and counterposed to, what is erroneously considered ‘class’ demands. Some leftists, liberals and Catholics had joined the NILP in the mid-1960s and the previous setbacks to the Party had weakened the pro-Unionist MPs.  In 1965 the Party conference voted against the Special Powers Act and in 1966 it and the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions demanded ‘one man, one vote’, fair electoral boundaries for local government, measures to end discrimination in housing and employment, fair representation on public boards and appointment of an ombudsman.

As we have seen in the previous post, the NILP took some progressive positions but could not take the lead in a civil rights campaign, and not even a militant campaign around economic demands (considered wrongly by this tendency to be more ‘class’ based demands than equality and an end to sectarian discrimination).  No trade union was later ever to affiliate to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Whatever the abstract truth of the need for working class leadership to achieve working class unity, and how to make this more than a tautology, the labour and trade union movement in the North of Ireland showed itself incapable of challenging the Unionist regime or Protestant workers support for it.  Its own organisational integrity was always held up as the primary unity to be protected by not being too ambitious.  In this way all progress could only, and did, pass it by.

This did not mean that support from the NILP and trade unions should not have been sought, and we can see that it was.  What would have been wrong however would have been to hostage a civil rights campaign to such support, so that no other means to creating a campaign could have been considered. A political challenge to discrimination and sectarianism should not have been opposed, abstained from or refused participation within because, ultimately, it is argued that only the working class movement could deliver an end to sectarian division and the much sought-after unity that socialism requires.

As we have seen, a wide range of forces took up the mantle of civil rights, at this time with little effect. From the Ulster Liberals to the NILP, Communist Party and radical leftists, all could see the injustices that were becoming less and less tolerable, especially to young Catholics.

At this time the Communist Party of Northern Ireland claimed that “closer examination of the anti-democratic laws reveals that they are aimed at the Catholic population, to some extent, in the main they are aimed against the interests of the working class”.

Again, such a position might be true from a general socialist standpoint, but such a position would not be enough to overcome sectarian division since it would only be possible to accept this argument that sectarian division was against the working class as a whole if the working class as a whole was seen to have its own interests separate from its Protestant and Catholic parts.  Most Protestant workers however were clear that sectarian practices were against Catholics.

It was subsequently the initiative of the republican movement to create a campaign against discrimination and for civil rights that created the organisation now most clearly recognised as the civil rights campaign. The republican movement of the day is not to be confused with Sinn Fein today, which (as the Provisionals) were formed later, and whose leaders were opposed to the strategy at that time adopted.  The strategy of the republicans at this time did not involve repudiation of armed struggle but rather acceptance that it was not at that time possible.

The republican Wolfe Tone Societies met in Maghera in August 1966 and discussed a document on civil rights with a view to a convention on civil rights and a civil rights charter. Not all republican leaders were enthusiastic, but the broad proposal was accepted and a seminar held in Belfast in November.  This agreed to launch a civil rights body at another meeting to which a variety of organisations and all the local political parties were invited.  The launch took place in January 1967 and the civil rights campaign was born.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

From Civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ – part 4 Labour’s failure

Political developments inside the Catholic population set out in the previous post were reflections of changes within a seemingly stagnant Northern society, most notably the growing strength and confidence of its middle class and greater educational opportunities for working class Catholics.

For the former, if they shifted away from simple rejection of the Northern State it was not because they had strong material interests in that state but because they had the possibility for this to be the case.  For the latter, the increasing economic and social role of the state, including welfarism, made equality and the state’s opposition to it a much more immediate issue and one for which the State could not avoid taking clear responsibility.

Gerrymandered local government boundaries meant that discrimination became an acute issue as more and more Catholics who had received higher levels of education felt aggrieved that their efforts might be wasted, while their integrity and identity was being insulted, never mind the material loss of income to go with demeaned status.

Since an increased role for the State in housing provision through local government also made the state more directly responsible for Catholic disadvantage through discrimination in housing allocation, this too became a more blatant injustice. All the more insufferable in those areas where Catholics were a majority – west of the Bann and especially in Derry.  Belfast Catholics were almost always more aware of their vulnerability as a minority and the threat to their security – it wasn’t possible to be anything more than a minority, at least locally.

It could be no surprise therefore that the civil rights movement began in a real way outside Belfast and never became a mass movement inside it, certainly not in the way it was to become in the rest of the Northern State.  This heavily influenced the political development of the fight for reforms and the evolution of the socialist alternative to the varieties of nationalism that later triumphed in the struggle to lead the struggles of the Catholic working class.

So, in histories of the civil rights campaign it is the students at Queens University that appear prominently, and the Peoples Democracy organisation that they created that plays a key role. Later events confirmed that while students are an important segment of society they cannot substitute for the working class, which of course some of them were, and increasingly would, become.

The welfare state not only gave Stormont a more obvious role in the distribution of public resources but was a component of greater capitalist state intervention into the economy and society more generally. Greater state planning involved projects for new hospitals, roads, towns and a new university.  All gave opportunities for religious disadvantage given the geographical difference in the settlement of the two religious populations.  Promotion of new industry also had differential impacts on the two religious groups, with declining traditional industry mainly in Belfast and East of the Bann being replaced by outside investment in these areas.

This welfare state didn’t reflect the strength and struggle of the working class, and was primarily, as elsewhere, a means of socialising costs for capital by the state, but it did give some benefits by reducing inequalities between workers and encouraging their demands, in this case that distribution should be fair and equitable.

Accompanying the modernisation of state intervention was a modernisation of rhetoric from the Unionist regime in the person of the new Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill. O’Neill sought to modernise economic policy with a number of reports and a strategy of attracting outside investment. A new town, new university and new roads, and in 1964 recognition of the autonomous Northern Ireland Committee of the all-island Irish Congress of Trade Unions all reflected this new agenda.  New industry was attracted – Michelin, Du Pont, Enkalon as the old declined – and new economic and political links established with the South as O’Neill met Taoiseach Sean Lemass at the beginning of 1965.  All this persuaded the Nationalist Party to become the official opposition in Stormont for the first time in its history.

O’Neill’s policy was a result of the decline of traditional industry and therefore the erosion of the economic and social basis of the devolved regime, which would become more and more dependent on London and the political vagaries of politics at Westminster, especially if decline were to continue.  The election of a Labour Government in 1964 encouraged some nationalists to believe that the new Labour Government would be more sympathetic to Catholic expressions of grievance than the previous.  In this context, the existence of a small group of Labour MPs sympathetic to the nationalist case was seen as an important route to push for Westminster intervention and effect a break from the existing convention that London would not intervene in Stormont’s devolved responsibilities.

O’Neill’s policy was also a response to political pressure on Protestant working class support for the Unionist Party, which was suffering from the erosion of support consequent on the decline of traditional industry and growing unemployment.  Protestant workers were increasingly deserting the Unionist Party, threatening the all-class nature of the Stormont regime’s support.

Just as today predictions of unionist decline and defeat are partly based on increasing numbers who do not define themselves as unionist (or nationalist), so the increase in votes for the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as the growth of class-based politics.  While perhaps easily dismissed now in hindsight, were a similar growth to develop today it is likely that some left enthusiasm for such a development would actually be greater.  It is therefore important to consider the question whether Unionist rule could have been overturned by the Protestant working class?

The 1958 Stormont election saw the NILP do well with unemployment growing in Protestant working class areas, winning four seats against unionists in these areas, although the nature of the Party and its leaders at this point needs to be taken into account.  For example, in his maiden speech one newly elected NILP MP attacked nationalists as sectarian for complaining about discrimination. Just as today when loyalists present themselves as defenders of the interests of the Protestant working class, the emphasis of the NILP at this point is on the limiting attribute of ‘Protestant’.

In the following 1962 election the NILP retained their four seats, and with the IRA campaign over, achieved its highest ever vote of 76, 842, although the Party didn’t win any more seats.  In Belfast the NILP vote was 60,170 while the Unionist vote was 67,450.  The latter however included 5,049 business votes, few of which would have gone to Labour.  Some foresaw the NILP as a ‘formidable contender’ for control of Belfast in five years’ time.  In 1964 the NILP increased its vote again to 103,000 in the Westminster election, although winning no seats.

In 1965 O’Neill called a Stormont election and despite fielding more candidates the NILP vote fell to 66,323, losing two of their four working class seats. O’Neill’s modernisation agenda had stolen much of the platform of the NILP’s social democracy, and his image was less overtly sectarian than previous Unionist Party leaders.

This arose from O’Neill visiting Catholic schools and meeting members of the church, which gained some Catholic goodwill while generating loyalist anger.  He was still however a member of the Orange Order and joined two other loyal orders after becoming Prime Minister.   None of the minority’s grievances regarding gerrymandering of local government, discrimination and the Special Powers Act or B Specials were touched.  Even the Unionist newspaper, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ later noted that appointments to public bodies made a mockery of O’Neill’s professions of goodwill.

The sectarian character of the Unionist regime remained intact and the most prominent members of the NILP in the early 1960s were opposed to challenging its discrimination. These leaders faithfully reflected some of the most backward ideas within the Protestant working class rather than attempting to lead them somewhere more progressive.

Their commitment to the constitutional status of the state was absolute, and their reactionary character was exemplified by a relatively minor event that has since become notorious for demonstrating the NILP’s reactionary cowardice.  In November 1964 a motion in Belfast Corporation to open public play centres on a Sunday was defeated by one vote with two Labour members of the corporation voting against it – the swings in the parks were to be locked and closed.

By 1966 it was clear that the NILP could not oust the Unionist Party but there was nevertheless a small constituency which was sympathetic to Catholic grievance.  Throughout the 1960s the NILP took up issues later prominent in the civil rights campaign, including opposition to repressive legislation and an enquiry into discrimination and gerrymandering.  What the Party could not do was either mount a credible challenge as an alternative majority in Stormont to the electoral hegemony of the Unionist Party, or lead an alternative movement outside of the electoral arena – a Labour-led civil rights movement.

This meant that the defeat of the Unionist regime and its sectarianism would not come from within the Protestant working class or, it would appear, from the ranks of social democracy reaching across the sectarian divide to Catholic workers.  This would have required a larger and stronger Party more committed to ending the sectarian division through popular campaigning. The organisation of even a small number of individuals from the Protestant working class with such a perspective would have been exemplary but would have found it extremely hard to change the dynamic of later events that led to the troubles, and would even have found it hard to maintain organisation as sectarian mobilisation increased within Protestant working class areas.

Instead there were a number of ominous developments in the mid-sixties that would later become typical of what has been called a loyalist ‘backlash’, although as examination of the period shows this was a backlash that came first by creating the circumstances employed to justify itself.

Violent loyalist activity preceded the troubles, with notable riots in 1966 in protest at commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.  Attacks on Catholics and their property led to two Catholic men being shot dead and one Protestant woman killed in a petrol bob attack on a Catholic pub next door to her home  The Orange Order denounced the Rome-ward trend of Protestant churches and there was a push against O’Neill in the Unionist parliamentary party that included four out of nine cabinet members.

Even by 1966, before the civil rights campaign had really started, or the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had been created, a ‘backlash’ had erupted against purely symbolic diluting of sectarian supremacy.

On the Catholic side disillusionment had set in by 1965, with the hopes raised by O’Neill generating disappointment and some bitterness. Nationalist Party participation as an official opposition in Stormont was gaining them nothing.   By 1964 the first organisation with a recognisable political agenda based on civil rights had been set up.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 3 – nationalist failures

As we argued in the previous post, the civil rights movement grew out of the failure of the traditional alternatives which Catholics in the North of Ireland looked to in order to address their grievances.  These had sought to address the problem at source – through removing partition and ending the Northern State itself.

The first of these was through the Nationalist Party, whose various participation and absence from Stormont were equally ineffective.  Belfast Catholics also voted for various Labour parties and individuals and some radicals joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1960s, especially in Derry where they later played an important part in the civil rights movement. The Nationalist Party however was hardly a party at all, with no party structure, only holding its first annual conference in 1966, and was dominated by small businessmen, farmers, professionals and the clergy.

As the Anti-Partition League (APL) the Party had sought in 1945 to unite all those in the North opposed to partition and, like a couple of decades later, hoped that the new Labour government in London would be more sympathetic to its cause. The Party also appeared attuned to the times when Fianna Fail in the South ramped up its nationalist rhetoric when faced with a greener competitor on its flanks: Clann na Poblachta as part of a coalition Government in the South declared the Irish state a Republic in 1949.

The League tried to build a real organisation with offices and branches and to create a campaign with meetings and rallies across the North, also looking to the Irish in Britain and US, as well as in the Irish state.  Hopes of progress faced an intransigent Unionist government that banned nationalist demonstrations, while the Unionist Party increased its grip on Protestant workers assisted by Labour politics in the North splitting over partition.

The inevitable failure of the APL and lack of organisation of its successor signaled that Catholic disadvantage would not be reduced through constitutional campaigning. Relying significantly on local Catholic notables and the Church, the latter was more interested in its own temporal power than that of its flock, and this entailed funding from the Stormont regime and an amicable relationship with it.

The strongest Irish nationalist movements were the political parties in the South, but they too were more interested in the security and strength of their own partitioned state, which also came to be seen as linked to an amicable relationship with the Unionist State.

The second force within the Catholic population was nationalism in its more militant guise of republicanism. After the defeat of the Anti-Treaty forces in the civil war the defeated IRA sought a ‘second round’ of struggle against the Free State, the traitors who had split the movement and betrayed the true Republic.

Despite strenuous claims by republicans as to the continuity of their movement it is the discontinuities which are most remarkable, and the greatest break in the continuity of the movement in the 20th century was its attitude to the Irish State.  Today the idea that the main goal of the IRA should be to overthrow the Irish State would seem incredible, but this only illustrates how much the movement has changed.

A further split in the Anti-Treaty movement and the creation of Fianna Fail in 1926 exposed the weakness of militant republicanism and its nationalist politics. With Fianna Fail in government the lack of any principles based on class left it with no political rationale for prioritising overthrow of the new Irish State.  Popular opposition to any such project made ditching this objective easier, while also simpler to pass over the change in programme without anything being learned.  It was however now saddled with a policy that sought to abolish partition but without fundamental opposition to one of the partitioned states, the one previously considered to be the immediate and principal enemy.

Robbed of the perspective of a ‘second round’ against the Free Staters, the IRA embarked on a bombing campaign directly against Britain in 1939, which exposed the strategic weakness of the movement.  It was however saved from even greater humiliation by bigger concerns created by the much larger conflict.

The remaining target was the Northern State itself, which had witnessed isolated IRA action in the 1930s and 1940s, but which became the central target of a border campaign launched in 1956.  This however spluttered out long before it was brought to a formal close in 1962, when the IRA was forced to dump arms while blaming the people for lack of support.

In fact, elections in 1955 had shown that there was significant support in the areas where the campaign was expected to operate, so it appeared again that no real lessons were learnt, although it should have been clear what these were.   The restriction of IRA activity in Belfast already indicated some appreciation of weakness, but without any apparent consideration about what this might have meant for the effectiveness of its strategy as a whole and republican politics more generally.

There were now no more strategic targets left, with all three states in opposition to it having easily crushed attempts at armed rebellion.

At this point some in the republican movement did begin to learn lessons, which if fully comprehended and absorbed would have radically transformed the movement.  Unfortunately, the new emphasis in the 1960s on economic and social agitation was not in itself an alternative to belief in the power of armed struggle, and when this radical reconsideration was later completed by the Official republican movement it was not to lead to the embrace of socialism, but to the stultifying and corrupting grip of Stalinism.

Since Irish Republicanism had long become a militant form of nationalism, and Stalinism had long become a nationalist form of socialism, the difference between militant nationalism and nationalist socialism was both easy to cross over and easy to erase. Nationalism was common to both, as was the understanding of socialism as primarily amounting to state intervention by the existing state, with the cherry of a left governing party at the top of a capitalist cake.  Today some left-wing republicans have attempted to come to terms with the defeat of Provisional republicanism through embracing the current incarnation of Stalinism, although in doing so they have simply repeated the experience of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the identification by some republicans of the need for attention to be given to economic and social agitation did provide an important thread that led to the creation of the civil rights movement. In this they were joined by concerned members of the Catholic middle class and radicals and leftists in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In doing so these various currents would come together to identify a radical approach to the growing concern of many, a concern with what might seem to be a programme of limited reform, but which contained within it much more explosive potential.

That diverse movements came separately to this point indicates that forces more fundamental than themselves were working, and we will look at these in the next post.

Of course, in the end, the nationalist consciousness of the vast majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland was not broken by the civil rights movement despite the earlier failures of such politics.  As a result of this, more radical socialist and even left republican politics were not so much defeated as marginalised by the dynamics of developments as these ran into the ‘troubles’.  But before we get to that we will look at the progenitors of the civil rights movement.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

 

From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 2 – from reform to revolution?

A common left-wing view of the move from a struggle for civil rights to a struggle against the existence of the Northern State itself is that it was an inevitable shift from an attempt to reform an unreformable state to a necessary struggle to destroy it; a move from reform to revolution.

In terms of the subjective intentions of many participants this is largely true, although latterly Sinn Fein has been claiming that actually, it was all about civil rights and equality right the way through.

This, of course, is nonsense, and a complete re-writing of history, but no one but the young or ignorant takes such claims seriously.  Ironically however, such claims are correct in one important and unintended respect, arising from the fact that the political significance of events does not simply depend on what people think they are doing but the objective significance of their actions.

As Marx once said – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Given the material constraints on people’s actions; the impact on them of the actions of opposing forces, in addition to their own imperfect understanding of what is happening and will happen, it is inevitable that the results of what they are doing are often not consistent with what they intended, or hoped and expected would be achieved.

Certainly, many later recollections by leading participants in the civil rights campaign expressed their shock at the viciousness and scale of the reaction against their modest demands, indicating that they did not fully understand what the results of their actions would be. In the first post I pointed to their statements, even at the time, where this confusion was honestly expressed.

So if we look at what the objective significance was of the struggle for civil rights and the republican armed struggle against the state it is clear that it was the former that destroyed the coherence of the Unionist regime in the North and it was the latter, and its leadership, which led to incorporation of the opposition to the state into participation and support for it, after a long time it must be admitted.

This is where we are today, with republican in-out participation in Stormont and acceptance of partition and British rule.  Since it was never possible for the IRA campaign to defeat the British State their struggle was eventually forced to seek a different goal; the objective significance of their struggle, its woeful inadequacy to its declared task, imposed itself on their subjective intentions to the extent republicans ended up lying, claiming that really it was never about ‘Brits Out’ and always about ‘equality’.

So if we want to look at why events took the course that they did, and what the consequences would most likely be of the various political strategies put forward at the time, we need to understand firstly the circumstances of the struggle.

Partition created a sectarian state in the North of Ireland in which those loyal to the foreign power were a majority.  Their colonial privileges were thus both more secure but also less significant, especially as the state was deemed to be an integral part of the imperial polity and there were therefore limits to how much these could diverge from the democratic norms of the rest of the UK State. There was not therefore the enormous differences in living standards and democratic rights that existed in most colonies where white men ruled native populations. In this particular colony the differences in rights and resources that existed in imperialist occupation of African and Asian societies could not exist.

Features of colonialism existed but were less pronounced. Many Protestants and Catholics lived in different areas – and the Troubles saw this separation increase – and land ownership demonstrated the privileged position of Protestant landowners and farmers. Traditional industries with good jobs were dominated by Protestants while Catholic unemployment was significantly higher.  The repressive forces of the State were staffed almost wholly by Protestants who had more or less exclusive access to arms.

The disintegration of the Unionist regime was heralded by the decline of these industries and the necessity to modernise the economic base of the state through foreign investment, which had no necessary requirement for discrimination. The growth of the Catholic population and employment; the change in economic structure, and the reduction in relative Catholic unemployment has since reduced these colonial features.

There exits therefore a politically divided working class, but it is a single class and not a settler colonial population sitting on top of super-exploited natives.  Neither simple anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism or unproblematic class unity are adequate ways of understanding the tasks of socialists.

Inequality between Catholics and Protestants was thus necessary because of history and to maintain support for, and justify the existence of, the state to the majority who supported it.  On the other hand, such sectarianism was inconsistent with any claim to the bourgeois democratic norms which the British State claimed for itself.  The state ‘solved’ this contradiction through majority support for its rule within the state and ignoring the sectarianism, discrimination and repression that this involved.

The civil rights movement accordingly developed as a claim for rights that were supposed to already exist, and be guaranteed by Britain, but which clearly did not.  The purpose often expressed by the civil rights campaign was therefore to get British intervention to remove the discrimination and sectarianism that was ingrained in the local regime by forcing that regime to reform, or for Britain to take over from it if it did not.  In effect, imperialism was being asked to intervene more directly, clearly not what normally might be considered an anti-imperialist demand or requirement of an anti-imperialist struggle.

The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was therefore inspired by the black civil rights movement in the United States, which didn’t have the option of seeking black rights through separation and creation of a black state, but which did have the possibility of forcing intervention by the Federal Government, especially its judiciary, against individual States.  Ireland was clearly different because the majority of the Irish people did have their own state and unity with it was always viewed as the ultimate solution by the majority of the Irish people and by democrats everywhere

The development of the civil rights movement however showed that this was not a realistic option, the Irish state could neither enforce unity nor ensure equality for Catholics in the North.  In fact, it wasn’t particularly interested in either.  When it too began to seek outside capital, it joined with the Unionist regime in the North in seeking to make the island attractive to foreign investment, which meant a new Free Trade Agreement with Britain in 1965 and falling in behind Britain in seeking membership of the European Economic Community.

This is yet another example of the world not being as people think it is.  The majority of Catholics in the North see themselves politically as nationalists and view politics in nationalist terms.  They have therefore repeatedly displayed illusions in the willingness of the Irish State to come to their aid and protect their interests. Its repeated failure to do either shows that whatever weaknesses there have been in socialists’ understanding of political dynamics, they have understood that it is the class interests of the Southern bourgeoisie and its State which have dictated its determination to ally with Britain.  Reclaiming the fourth green field doesn’t come into it.

The Catholic minority in the North appeared to have a number of options to address its grievances and it was the failure of the solutions its nationalist political identity naturally pointed it to that laid the basis for the development of the civil rights movement, and which saw Irish Catholics demand British rights.

These potential solutions included the Irish State, Southern political establishment and public opinion around the world addressing the wrong of partition. A second solution involved the armed overthrow of the Northern State by militant Irish republicanism, building on its earlier achievements.

The decline of traditional industries owned by the Unionist capitalist class and of industries such as shipbuilding dominated by Protestant employment lay behind hopes that the Unionist regime itself would have to reform its most repellent sectarian practices. The advent of the apparently moderate Terence O’Neill as the fourth Prime Minister of Northern Ireland gave rise to such hopes, if not expectations.

Finally, there was some hope that Protestants themselves might seek to end sectarian discrimination, a move that could really only arise and be effective if coming from the Protestant working class.  Such hopes have always been a significant component of socialist strategy, and in fact such a strategy requires it to some degree.

The failure of each led to the development of the civil rights movement, and the next post will set out the story of this failure.

The reality of Northern Ireland in this period dashed one other illusion.  The belief that the struggle had moved from one of reform to a question of revolution led some socialists to argue that since the Northern State could not be reformed it had to be smashed.  Since this required a united Ireland and such a struggle would, and was, opposed by the Southern State and capitalist class, the struggle for an Irish democracy could only be led by the working class and achieved through the struggle for socialism – a Workers’ Republic.  And of course this requires a revolution.

The logic may be impeccable, but it is still a formula, and one that does not start from the material forces that would take the formula from the realm of ideas into the reality of political practice – the final confirmation required by Marxism.

The working class in the North was bitterly divided, with the majority refusing to accept, never mind support, the equality of Catholic workers.  Irish workers in the Southern State were sympathetic with opposition to Catholic oppression in the North but the nationalist grounds for this sympathy excluded any identification of a common material and class interest with the Northern Struggle that would have produced a common struggle.

The struggle in the North did not, and could not, engulf the South of the country because there was no common force propelling a shared struggle by the whole Irish working class. The effectiveness of partition in dividing the working class is the major reason it has been so bitterly opposed in the first place.  The struggle in the North spilled over episodically, after Bloody Sunday and during the hunger strikes for example, and the sympathy in the South that existed did limit British state repression, but it could not summon up a common struggle, never mind a common movement for socialism.

In other words socialism, a Workers’ Republic, was not on the cards.  This does not mean that there were no grounds for socialists to intervene, or that they should not have fought for socialist objectives or under a socialist banner.  Socialism involves an immense transformation of existing society and the struggle for it will take many years and go through many stages.  Marx said it, and history has conclusively demonstrated it.

That stages exist in the struggle to advance working class interests, that take forward the unity and organisation of the working class and increase its political consciousness, is inevitable and obvious, but does not mean that these stages are predefined in duration or limited in advance.

Mass demonstrations, riots, the downfall of Governments and political crises can all give the illusion that more fundamental social transformation is happening and is possible than the purely political and relatively minor changes that are actually occurring, or are achievable at that time.  Gun battles, bombs and the rhetoric of armed struggle can make this seem even more the case.

Marxists however are interested not simply in political changes in which the basis of capitalist society remains intact, even if reformed and modified in some way. Socialist revolution requires more than political change, but necessitates the working class becoming the rulers of society through control and ownership of the means of production, which determines so much of everything else important in society.  A revolution is therefore primarily about the revolutionising of the working class so that it not only has the potential power to take over society but actively desires and has the capacity developed through struggle to do so.  The working class in Ireland was far from this point.

The period of struggle from civil rights to a challenge to the existence of the Northern State must therefore be viewed from a socialist perspective with an understanding that socialist revolution was not possible, and this should not be controversial.  What we need to learn is what socialists could have done to advance the interests of the working class in conditions which were not at all propitious for socialism but from which lessons can be learned.

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