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.

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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.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ part 1

Last year marked fifty years since the civil rights movement hit the headlines.  This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the troubles in 1969.  If the first was remembered as the harbinger of hope the second will be recalled for dashing these hopes.

It is important to recall these events in order to inform those too young to have been there of just exactly what happened and what the political significance of the events was; and to remind everyone of events that occurred that have not only been forgotten but deliberately no longer recounted because they do not fit the now standard narrative of how the troubles started.  This is true also for socialists because there are lessons that can be learned, or at least discussed, which challenge many elements of today’s received wisdom.

Reading about the period again puts into place certain personal episodes which I have remembered imperfectly as isolated events but which can be located within the broader narrative.

Since I was only a child when these events happened impressions are all that I have.  The most dramatic is of hunkering under the table with the lights out and internal doors placed over the front windows of the house to protect us from stray bullets that were exchanged up and down the street in a gun battle between the British Army at one end and the IRA at the other.

Earlier in the year I recall wondering where my two friends in the street had gone when I returned from my annual summer holiday spent with my granny in Glasgow. It turns out that the two girls had, with their family, been forced to leave their house because they were Catholics in a predominantly Protestant area, one that pretty soon was to become a centre of loyalist paramilitary organisation.

That year my sister can remember being caught up with my mother in a riot at the bottom of the Shankill Road as loyalists attacked the predominantly Catholic Unity Flats at the bottom of the road. Only the kindness of an unknown man meant that they were shepherded away through the backstreets of the Shankill Road up to our home in Woodvale.

It was not until a couple of years later that I became aware that I was not really in sympathy with the wider unionist ‘culture’, as it is now called.  My parents were socialists, and whatever limits there were to their politics, it didn’t include belief in the compatibility of socialism with monarchy and anti-Catholic sectarianism.  They had attended meetings in support of civil rights and voted for the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

I later learned that at a house party in our street at around this time, when everyone had been asked to sing a favourite song, my mother sang ‘We shall Overcome’, the anthem of the civil rights campaign.  God knows how that went down.  I also later learned that my Father would get drunk and sing the ‘Red Flag’ in pubs on the Road, which would normally lead to getting a severe hiding were it not for his friends and his lifelong residence confirming his provenance as really ‘one of ours’ – a Prod from the Road.

None of this makes for an understanding of the political dynamics of the period and how they should be judged by socialists, which is what I want to write about.  It does however allow me to make two important points.

First, that the civil rights movement had some, if limited, sympathy within the Protestant working class. And two, that this sympathy expresses progressive impulses which should not be besmirched by later attempts to pretend that working class loyalism is in any way progressive, when it is this loyalism that is an immediate obstacle and threat to the development of socialism in the Protestant working class.

One of the worst experiences of the last 40 years of my political activity in Ireland was sitting at a Socialist Party meeting in a Dublin trade union hall listening to an SP leader praise the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force – the Progressive Unionist Party – for introducing socialism into Protestant working class areas. This included parading Billy Hutchinson as the embodiment of this, despite him being a sectarian killer who declared in an interview that he had no regrets, since his actions had prevented a united Ireland.  According to his Wikipedia page he also participated in the riots at Unity Flats.

This does not mean that I subscribe to the view that there is a relatively straight-forward political programme that answers the problems posed by partition and sectarian division. In fact I have written a number of posts beginning here that point to the problems posed today in elaborating a socialist perspective.

This series of posts is an exercise in being, what I hope is, wiser after the event, which is infinitely better than not being wiser.  If you can’t do this after the event there is really no hope of you learning anything.  As the very un-Marxist philosopher Kierkegaard said – “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  We will learn from history in order to make whatever attempt we can to change it better next time – “fail better” perhaps, in the words of Samuel Beckett.

What must strike anyone reading of the period, and current reflections on it, is the ready acknowledgement by many of the participants that they didn’t fully understand what was going on at the time. So one examination of the lessons of the civil rights campaign accepts that –

“We were blind to the complexities. We believed in our new enthusiasm that we could appropriate ready-made tactics of moral persuasion and mass nonviolence resistance. We were unaware of the complexities of the American black and radical movements and of the sharp debate around very real differences. We did not realise that the tactics and strategy of the civil rights movement in America were contested there and that that strategy would be contested in Ireland also.”

Another prominent participant, Eamonn McCann, admits that:

“Anybody who looks back on 50 years and says, ‘I never made a mistake’, is a liar or a fool. We all make mistakes. Huge mistakes were made in the 1960s in the course of the broad civil rights movement. But I think the civil rights movement achieved an awful lot.”

And it is not that this confusion and lack of clarity, leading to disagreement and mistakes, was not obvious at the time.  One only has to read the New Left Review interview with the leaders of Peoples Democracy in 1969 to see the obvious lack of coherence.

So, Eamonn McCann says in the interview that “the consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian” while the next answer from Michael Farrell states 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 workers are almost as much exploited as they are”

To which McCann replies – “I think this assessment is very wrong . . . I believe we have failed to get our position across in the last six months”.  Bernadette Devlin (as then was) then says that “People outside Northern Ireland fail to appreciate the confusion that exists here; nobody knows what they want or how to achieve it . . .”  And then she goes on “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves.  I’d say there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .”

Today this lack of agreement continues, with the first writer linked above stating that “the CRM [Civil Rights Movement] was defeated”, while Eamonn McCann makes a less clear-cut judgement – “It was by no means perfect, but I do think it emerges with great credit from the history of the last 50 years and it is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North, certainly since the coming of the women’s movement . . . I think it was a very significant success which didn’t last. That’s the way I look at it. It absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland.”

I think a movement that “is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North” but which absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland” might be close to the truth.

In any case, this series of posts is premised on the view that the issues and arguments that arose during the period from civil rights to ‘the troubles’ is still relevant not only to understanding what happened then but to socialist strategy today, not only in the North of Ireland but more generally.

So traduced has this history become that we have seen Sinn Fein claim ownership of the civil rights campaign when the creation of the Provisional Republican Movement was based on the militants who rejected the political course of the existing Republican Movement which supported that campaign, and rejected political struggle in general as a way forward.  The civil rights movement issued at least partly out of the Republican Movement that the Provisionals rejected and preceded their birth.

This series of posts will not present a comprehensive narrative of the history of the civil rights campaign and start of the troubles but will look at the most important themes and developments that should be re-examined today.  The next post will look at the creation of the civil rights movement.

Forward to part 2