Why Northern Ireland broke down

Submitted by AWL on 3 October, 2007 - 3:00 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 1)

    Next article in series: The Irish Workers' Group, IS and the "Trotskyist Tendency": The Irish Crisis and the British Left 1968-70 — part 2

    How and Why the Six-County State Broke Down

    Recently the British army in Northern Ireland was withdrawn to where it was in relation to Northern Ireland society before 14 August 1969, when it was put on the streets to be an emergency scaffolding for a state and society that had begun to break down into Protestant/ Catholic civil war. After 38 years, it has been returned to barracks.

    In those 38 years, nearly 4000 people have died violently in Northern Ireland. To get the equivalent for the population of the UK you have to multiply by forty — over 150,000 people.

    Under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which has taken nearly a decade to make operational, intricately-structured bureaucratic inter-sectarian political structures have replaced the Army — and, very belatedly, the Orange/ Protestant majority sectarian rule that existed for the 50 years before it broke down in 1969.

    It is a good time to look at the political crisis into which the deployment of British troops to a central role in Northern Ireland threw a section of the British left in 1969, specifically, the SWP’s predecessor organisation, the International Socialists (IS). It was an important and in some respects a shaping experience for the revolutionary left.

    Above all, it raised central questions of political principle and approach. It has light to thrown on the proper attitude to take to the British troops in Iraq today. And it is one of the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented episodes in the history of the British left.

    The writer was centrally involved in the disputes on the left at that time and, specifically, in IS. In dealing with the history of events and debates in which I was involved, I have the choice either of speaking in the first person, as a participant, or in the “Arthur Scargill” mode, repeatedly referring to myself, by name, in the third person. I would find that ridiculous and risible.

    I will tell the story as a participant in it, and combine that with citing documents and minutes as much as possible. This is being written in haste, and I may add further citations and references to the version of this series of articles that will be published on the AWL website.


    Ireland and England have been intertwined since the first Anglo-Norman invasion, which began in 1169 — by 1969, for exactly 800 years. Irish-Scottish entwinement went back into the Dark Ages, and included a small kingdom, Dalriada, that stretched from north-east Ulster across the straits to include part of Scotland.

    It was as late as 1922 that what is now the 26 County Republic of Ireland attained an at first circumscribed independence from the United Kingdom. At the same time, Britain set up a separate state in north-east Ulster, with a Parliament of its own in Belfast, having limited powers of Home Rule subordinate to Westminster.

    In fact Westminster left the Six Counties government, controlled uninterruptedly for five decades by the Protestant-sectarian Unionist Party, to do more or less what it liked “at home”. There was one-party sectarian Protestant rule in Belfast, based on the Protestant two-thirds of the population. The big Catholic minority were second-class citizens. That is how things remained from the beginning until the early mid 1960s.

    For four years or so before 1968 Northern Ireland had been shaken up and destabilised. In October 1968, when Northern Ireland’s police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacked peaceful demonstrators in Derry City, it blew up.

    Privately and openly the British Labour government had been putting pressure on the Protestant sectarian regime in Belfast to stop being blatantly sectarian, to stop institutionalised discrimination against Catholics. To many it seemed that the British government no longer considered the partition of Ireland to be in Britain’s interest, or the Orange-Unionists to be its allies and clients. Essentially, that was true.

    Relations between Britain and the 26 Counties were better than for 30 years. The Southern Irish economy was in its best shape in a quarter century. In 1965 an Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement was signed. In the same year the British government had the bones of the Irish nationalist Roger Casement dug up out of their grave at Pentonville jail, where Casement had been buried after they hanged him in 1916, and sent them to Ireland with much ceremony. In practical moves to closer cooperation and, using Casement’s bones, symbolically, Dublin and London were trying to lay the ghosts of past conflicts.

    Six County Prime Minister Terence O’Neill visited Dublin, and Taoiseach Sean Lemass visited Belfast. These were the first such visits in the half-century history of the two Irish states.

    The prospects ahead seemed to be that Britain and Ireland would both soon join the European Union (as they did in 1972), grow even closer together, and at some time in the middle-distance future agree to a reunification of Ireland, probably on some federal basis.

    On the surface it was a time of amicable cooperation, readjustment and moves towards rational reconstruction. The future looked good.

    The contradiction that changed these prospects so dramatically lay in Northern Ireland itself. They proved beyond the power of Britain — or of Britain, the Unionist Northern Ireland political Establishment and the Southern Irish bourgeoisie together — to control.

    FOR 50 years Northern Ireland had been ruled, as long-time Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Sir Basil Brooke (later Lord Brookeborough) had once expressed it, as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people”. The problem with that idea and the social and political realities it gave rise to in the 50 years before the system broke down in low-level civil war was that there was in Northern Ireland a big and growing Catholic minority — a hostile minority chronically dissatisfied with their condition; a hostile minority, big enough to be seen and treated as a threat to “the Protestant State”.

    Moreover, in nearly half the territory of the state, they were not a minority but the majority — and in territory along the border beyond which was the Republic of Ireland, with which Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority felt themselves to have a common nationality, religion and history. They were the big majority in Derry City, the state’s second city, situated only two miles outside of the Republic. There was a big Catholic minority in Belfast.

    The Catholic-Nationalists in the territory adjoining the other Irish state had been kept in the Six Counties against their will and controlled by active repression when the 6-Co state was set up in 1921-22. The Protestants repressed the Catholics, and had a special sectarian part-time wing of the police, the B-Specials, to do so. Against the Catholic-nationalists the Six County State was armed with a permanent police Special Powers Act, and often the right of indefinite imprisonment (internment) without charge or trial.

    Chronic antagonism was therefore built into the foundations of the Six Counties state.

    Northern Ireland was ruled by the Unionist Party from 1921 to the abolition of the Protestant-majority-controlled Belfast Parliament in 1972. That party was based on a solid Protestant bloc, involving all classes from slum Protestants to Protestant-Unionist capitalists and country-gentry “horse Protestants”. Fear of the Catholic minority and of the 26 County State kept the bloc together. Partly for political reasons, but also because there was great scarcity and poverty, even in the years of general UK prosperity, they systematically discriminated against Catholics.

    Politics was largely communal-sectarian politics — Catholic against Protestant. In the system that grew up, Catholics were cheated of local democracy: the system long discarded in Britain of giving business people one vote for every business premises continued in Northern Ireland, where it hit the poorer Catholic community. Areas with big Catholic majorities — Derry City for example — were blatantly gerrymandered to give the Protestant/ Unionist minority control of the local council. Because votes went with houses, Catholic housing was among the worst in Western Europe.

    More Catholics were unemployed than Protestants: run-down areas where unemployment never dropped below the Great Depression level, even during the years of the boom in the 40s, 50s and 60s, tended to be Catholic areas.

    There was systematic anti-Catholic discrimination in employment. The Harland and Wolff shipyard, and the big engineering works, employed practically no Catholics. The Sirocco Engineering Works in East Belfast, standing in the Catholic enclave of the Short Strand where there was 70% unemployment, had four Catholics out of 600 workers in the mid-70s. As a direct consequence of this, the composition of the trade unions was titled heavily against the Catholics.

    THE unions remained united on day to-day trade unionism, wages and conditions — but on a basis of accepting discrimination against some trade union members. Unity rested on tacit agreement not to raise discrimination, political questions, or the “constitutional position” of the Six Counties — the relationship with Britain. Trade union unity was unity of the marginally privileged with the oppressed on the terms laid down by the privileged — the status quo in industry and on the Six Counties’ constitutional position.

    At the top of the unions, prominent people often were leftists, had a left-wing past, or were Stalinists. For example, the Stalinist Betty Sinclair, a 1930s graduate of the “Lenin School” in Moscow, was Secretary of the Belfast Trades Council.

    Trade unions and trades councils could sometimes be got to pass “progressive” or liberal, or Stalinist-friendly foreign affairs resolutions, but those decisions were, usually, not representative of the Orange-Unionist majority of the Northern Ireland labour movement. Unity in the Northern Ireland trade unions was a fragile, and to a serious extent a fraudulent, thing. The threat of a split on “the constitutional questions” was always present, staved off by political paralysis and tacit agreement to avoid issues.

    The situation was much the same with the political labour movement. In the 1960s the Northern Ireland Labour Party had a socialist left wing in Derry and Belfast. But it was a Unionist, that is a fundamentally Protestant, party.

    Time and again, throughout its history, it had been disrupted by conflicting positions on “the constitutional question”. Always for the status quo, it attempted to broaden its support, sometimes by playing down its Unionist character, sometimes by trickery. In the 1940s, for example, the NILP agitated in the Falls Road under the Irish tricolour; in the Shankill Road under the Union Jack;, and in the city centre under the Red Flag! Inevitably this party fell apart, repeatedly.

    The Protestant workers were a privileged layer. Their privileges were pitiably small, indeed marginal — but nevertheless in the social context of Northern Ireland they were big privileges. Leon Trotsky once remarked that the greatest possible privilege is to have a crust of bread when everybody else is starving. To have, as part of the Protestant ruling bloc, a considerably better chance of a job amongst mass unemployment, was no small privilege.

    Yet it would be stupid to explain the attitudes of the Northern Ireland Protestant workers in terms of a vulgar materialism which reduces everything to the defence of privilege in crude economic terms. They had a conception of their own identity, that they were British and Protestant; they had a conception of their own history as the history of heroic defence of their own traditions of religious and civil liberty against “Papist” encroachment.

    It was as strong an identity as the Catholics’ self-identity, and the Catholics’ tradition rooted in centuries of resisting terrible oppression and trying to gain the right to freely practise their religion, which had been outlawed with varying degrees of severity for hundreds of years. For the Catholics, those centuries of oppression were not a thing of history only, but continued in what they, as second class citizens in the “Protestant State” were still suffering.

    There was truth in both traditions, and both were deeply felt.

    THE pamphlet IS and Ireland, published by the Trotskyist Tendency of IS (a predecessor of Solidarity) during the 1969 debate on Ireland in IS, put it like this:

    “The evolution of capitalism and Ireland’s peculiar ‘combined and uneven’ relationship with British capitalism, had produced in the Island of Ireland something more like two nations than one.”

    The Northern Ireland State could not be a “Protestant State for a Protestant people” except on terms unacceptable to its Catholic minority. The Six Counties could not, as the Catholic Nationalists wanted, become part of an all-Ireland state, without the willing agreement of the 6-County Protestant-Unionist majority.

    Britain’s reforming drive in the mid 60s, and the “Civil Rights” agitation it stimulated and encouraged, led, in the late 60s and early 70s to Northern Ireland splitting along the lines of its internal communal-national divide. The two communities, traditions, or national identities split not horizontally along the lines of class, but vertically.

    They had never been united, but now the division widened and soon assumed nascent civil war proportions. This process accelerated dramatically after 5 October 1968.

    Why did things go like that? Where the upper-class Orange and Unionist political leaders were willing to make timid moves in the direction of reform, the Protestant working class ranks became very alarmed that reform would be at their expense, and at the expense of their freedom from Catholic domination. They became alarmed that they were going to be “sold out” and find themselves in a Catholic majority all-Ireland state.

    At first this disintegration of the Unionist bloc was a slow process. Around 1966, Ian Paisley, the most vocal representative of that alarm, still seemed an archaic crank. But already the first killings occurred in 1966, when a Protestant secret army, the Ulster Volunteer Force killed a Catholic barman suspected by them of having connections with an IRA which in real terms scarcely still existed.

    At first, in the mid-60s, the Protestant backlash was limited. It seemed it could easily be contained. The Catholic agitation that now got under way, to add pressure from below to the British government’s pressure for reform from above, turned it into a powerful mass movement.

    The Catholics began to agitate for “civil rights” — one man (sic) one job, one man one house, one man one vote.

    The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in 1967. It was a broad coalition led by Republicans who had renounced the gun — at least for the moment — green nationalist politicians, Stalinists, and socialists of various sorts. The broad political mobilisations which it brought about were the first such mobilisations in the history of the state.

    It is possible that the “civil rights” demands could have been acceptable to most Protestants. The civil rights movement was not only a Catholic affair. It had Protestants in it — Protestant student activists and even such future Unionist politicians as John Taylor (presently Lord Taylor). It had a lot of sympathy in the trade union movement. and not only among Catholics.

    But many Protestants feared that any Catholic mobilisation would threaten the existence of the Northern Ireland state. Those fears, spurring on the Protestant ultras, inflamed the political situation and increased the Catholic-Protestant polarisation. Home Secretary William Craig and others helped what they feared into vehement existence by their attempts to pre-empt it.

    The implications of the Catholic movement did go way beyond what they demanded by way of the civil rights movement. The fundamental civil right the Catholics lacked was the right of self-determination. They were an artificial minority within an artificial state, carved out against the will of the big majority of the people of Ireland and of a very big minority in the Six Counties.

    The discrimination and repression in the Orange sectarian state all flowed from that basic situation.

    It was not just ultra-sensitive Unionist politicians like Stormont Home Secretary, William Craig, who saw that the logic of any such mainly-Catholic movement would lead it straight to the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The leaders of the Republicans, who were heavily involved in the civil rights agitation, saw it as the first stage in a mass mobilisation that would, when the time was ripe, raise “the national question”. (The Republicans would split at the end of 1969. The “Provisional” IRA would separate from the Stalinist-influenced segment, thereafter called the “Official Republican Movement”).

    Against them, at the beginning, stood the very widely accepted belief that the UK welfare state — which was qualitatively more generous than that of the Republic, and on which Catholics, in proportion to their levels of unemployment, depended more than the Protestant Unionist population did — had reconciled the Northern Ireland Catholic-nationalists to partition. At the start, it had reconciled many of them.

    HOME Secretary-William Craig banned the 5 October 1968 civil rights demonstration in Derry. When the ban was defied, the police enforced it by way of baton charges against a peaceful crowd.

    World TV audiences saw the Republican Labour MP for West Belfast, Gerry Fitt, with blood streaming from a head wound caused by a police baton. Most importantly, people in Britain saw it.

    From that moment on, the Unionist government at Stormont Castle, on the edge of Belfast, was on the defensive. Northern Ireland was world headline news. The pressure for reform intensified.

    One of the most important responses in Northern Ireland to the bloody events in Derry was the creation of a powerful movement of students to agitate for civil rights — People’s Democracy. PD was based on Queen’s University, Belfast, and initially had many Protestant members.

    They were influenced by the world-wide student radicalisation of that time, which elsewhere focused on organising protests and solidarity with the Vietnamese against the USA. Many of the leaders of PD were Marxist socialists.

    Beginning with a “Long March” from Belfast to Derry through “Protestant territory”, which ended in a police riot in Derry, PD agitated and marched — often very provocatively — for civil rights.

    After October 1968, the half-century of the Orange-Unionist majority treating their “Taigs” as roughly as necessary to keep them “in their place”, and being able to do it with little “outsider” awareness and concern, was over.

    It was the global television age, with its instant transmission of images across the world. An uncensored stream of horror footage from Vietnam and the US war there had poured daily onto TV screens across the world. So, throughout the 1960s, had the struggles of US black people against discrimination and second-class citizenship — its mass demonstrations, police violence, strutting racist local officials.

    Now the UK’s quasi-police-state backyard was erupting. Its one-sectarian-party rule for half a century, its institutionalised discrimination, were on show.

    The UK media were universally sympathetic to the Catholic-nationalists. So was the British Labour government. It had already attempted to modify the sectarian political system in the artificial state.

    Many of the Catholics saw themselves as akin to the US blacks, and so did the leaders of the civil rights movement, including those like Michael Farrell who were (loosely) affiliated to the International Socialist organisation in Britain.

    Some Catholic-nationalist demonstrators sang civil rights songs. In the writer’s observation, in Derry the following year, a film about the US Black Panthers was very popular among militant young Republicans and incipient Republicans, those who would be the soldiers of the IRA war which would begin early in 1971).

    The unwonted media attention to the police assault on the peaceful (police-prohibited) march in Derry on 5 October had been aroused also as a result of the work of Northern Ireland politicians such as Gerry Fitt, a “Labour Republican”. Fitt had been elected to Westminster from West Belfast in 1966, and tirelessly brought Northern Ireland affairs to Westminster in defiance of the previous convention that they were not discussed.

    Media attention now became an autonomous factor. It changed everything.

    WILLIAM Craig was sacked from the Stormont government. The Protestant working class became increasingly alarmed at the prospect of being “sold out”. The Protestant backlash grew bigger and began to reflect itself inside the ruling Unionist Party.

    Central to what happened in the progressive breakdown of the 6-County State was the incapacity of the Unionist upper-class elite to carry the Protestant working class with them on reform. Every Catholic, or pro-Catholic, action stirred up and agitated the Protestant ranks, feeding the backlash. The elite could control neither the one nor the other, and the system was ground to bits between the two.

    O’Neill resigned in early 1969, to be replaced by another ex-Army man, his cousin Chichester-Clark. In January 1969 police rioted in Derry’s Bogside, the Catholic slum area built outside the walls of the one-time Protestant City of Londonderry, and beat a Bogsider, Samuel Devenney, to death in his house. The Catholics erected barricades to keep them out.

    Serious rioting occurred in July. Then in August the upper class Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, staged their annual but now very provocative march on the walls overlooking the Catholic slums. Big clashes developed between the police, the sectarian B-Special constables and assorted ultra-Protestants, “the Paisleyites”, on the one side, and the Catholics of the Bogside on the other.

    Barricades were set up, and the Bogsiders held off the forces of the state using stones and petrol-bombs. Protestant bigots attacked Catholic areas in West Belfast and burned out dozens of Catholic families. Barricades went up there too.

    The Dublin prime minister felt obliged to say publicly that the South could not “stand idly by”. The Southern state’s soldiers were moved up to the border, where they did “stand idly by”, leaving it to the British army to control the erupting sectarian civil war.

    On 14 August the British Army was moved onto the streets to stop the state falling apart. It quickly took control in Belfast and Derry.

    The Catholics welcomed the Army as saviours, famously plying them with friendly cups of tea — but they didn’t take their barricades down. The Catholics of Derry and Belfast had seceded from the Northern Ireland state, for the moment. The barricades would stay up, patrolled on the outside by the British Army armed with machine guns and rifles, and on the inside by Catholics armed with hurleys (like hockey sticks), until, after the British government announced it would accept all the reforms demanded by the civil rights movement, and more, the Catholics agreed to take them down in October.

    THAT was the first crucial turning point. The Northern Ireland state had shown itself to be unreformable. It had been designed to serve the Protestant majority and they had a built-in majority against any change they didn’t want.

    The Labour government had to decide what to do. As well as sending in the army, it sent in a bevy of civil servants to oversee the chief Northern Ireland civil servants, thus seriously curtailing the independence of the Northern Ireland government. That’s all the British Labour government did.

    As our pamphlet IS and Ireland put it:

    The cement had fallen out of the rickety Northern Ireland state, and its sponsors. The successors of the master builders who created the monstrous structure in the first place, had to act quickly. Direct intervention from London was the result....

    The taking of physical control through the army was the result. A tight military scaffolding was quickly erected to prevent a collapse into chaos. This was the role of the troops. Their meaning was essentially that, though the state structure of the UK had begun to break up from internal contradictions at one of its extremities, the system was still powerful enough at the centre to prevent chaos...

    With the steel fingers of the army, Britain quickly got a grip on the situation, and begun a controlled demolition on certain parts of the Northern Ireland set up...

    That it would take them 38 years to restore anything like normal government in Northern Ireland — and the present system can not be said to be firmly entrenched or stable yet — that, no one at the time could guess, or even imagine.

    Instead of recognising that the system had to be radically dismantled and restructured, the British labour government left it essentially in being, tinkering with it. But a process had begun that would end with the abolition of Stormont in March 1972, thus depriving the Protestant majority, whose right to self-determination the Six County state allegedly gives expression to, of the right to exercise that majority in any local political structures.

    The events of August-October 1969 set Northern Ireland on a new trajectory. That was not clear at the time. The youth in the Catholic areas who had been roused up and radicalised, were deflated and disappointed when the barricades came down in October 1969. An anti-climactic normality — except for the British Army now having a central role in controlling the two hostile peoples – set in for a while.

    The crisis in the Unionist Party continued, under pressure on one side from the British government to reform and on the other from the Protestant population against “selling them out” to the Catholics or “Dublin”. Chichester-Clark resigned in 1970, to be replaced by the tougher, less genteel and altogether less effete Brian Faulkner.

    PARADOXICALLY this period — 1968-1970 — saw the high point of socialism in Northern Ireland. Most of the prominent Catholic activists or representatives were socialists. The exceptions were middle-class civil rights people like John Hume, and even they allied with socialists like Gerry Fitt, MP for West Belfast, and called the party they set up in 1970 the Social Democratic and Labour Party. (Mainly Catholic, it then included some Protestants, like Ivan Cooper MP).

    People’s Democracy ceased to be an amorphous student movement in late 1969 and started agitating for socialism and on social questions. PD appealed to Protestant workers to see that socially they had a common interest with Catholic workers. The PD-associated MP for Mid-Ulster, Bernadette Devlin, elected in 1969, was a revolutionary socialist who worked closely in Britain with groups like IS (SWP) and, later the SLL (WRP). (Today she is hardly distinguishable from a Republican).

    All the leading activists in Derry were socialists, with the leading role falling to the Derry Labour Party, led by Eamonn McCann. In Derry almost all the Republicans were socialists, and some were influenced by Trotskyism. Most of these socialists appealed on social questions to both Catholic and Protestant workers. They all carefully tried to avoid appearing as Catholics or traditional Republicans.

    For example, a PD leader, Cyril Toman, who was then a sort of Trotskyist, a sympathiser with IS, tried to get himself a hearing from Protestant workers by erecting a Union Flag over his “soapbox” platform. (Toman would be a Sinn Fein Parliamentary candidate in the early 1980s).

    Most of the socialists denounced the idea that there could be a non-socialist united Ireland. Only in a socialist Ireland could the Protestants’ legitimate fears that Home Rule would be Rome Rule be allayed.

    They roundly abused the ‘Green Tory’ Republic, and marched across the border waving condoms — then banned in the Catholic South — in the faces of the 26 Counties police.

    By contrast, the Republicans were eclipsed. Shamed and split by their inability to defend the Catholic areas in August 1969, they seemed to count for little — and anyway the main body of Republicans were, they said, socialists too.

    The high point for this Northern Ireland socialism was, perhaps, the Westminster General Election of June 1970. The Northern Ireland Labour Party refused to endorse Eamonn McCann as a candidate, and he stood with the backing of the Derry and Coleraine Labour Parties.

    He advocated working-class socialism, which he defined as nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Mc Cann got 8,000 votes.

    SO there were lots of socialists, many of them Trotskyists of one sort or another. The problem was that they were largely confined to the Catholic community.

    There were, of course, also individual Protestants who were for equality for Catholics, and were socialists. Though the big student Protestant support for civil rights fell away very quickly, some stayed. For example, Ronnie Bunting, son of a prominent associate of lan Paisley, joined PD and was reputed to be “Chief of Staff” of the Irish National Liberation Army when he was murdered in 1981.

    But those were individuals. The Protestant working class remained impervious to appeals.

    Sections of it were ‘radicalising’ and separating off from the traditional Unionist leaders. But, as the old all-class Unionist bloc broke up, the Protestant workers turned to Paisleyism. Their radicalism was diffuse, sectional, fuelled in part by fear of the Catholics in the Six Counties, and defined against them.

    Class feeling was strictly confined within their communal framework. If they recognised similar people in similar conditions to their own across the communal divide, they did not go on to conclude that there was a common interest. Communalism shaped and limited everything.

    Northern Ireland’s society split vertically along communal lines in 1969 and after. When the Protestant community split horizontally, it had no positive significance for class politics. It was an affair internal to the Protestant community.

    That would be the basic tragedy of Northern Ireland for the rest of the twentieth century, and so far in the 21st: that the Unionist workers’ disillusionment with the Orange bosses served only to build the Paisley Democratic Unionist Party.

    The Catholics and their representatives — in the first place the socialists – could, and did, propose working class unity. But they could not impose it on the Protestant workers.

    Many activists agreed that “socialism was the only road”, but there can be no socialism without the working class — in this case, crucially, the Protestant working class — so that road was not open.

    The consequence for the radicalised Catholic youth was isolation from the main body of the working class and working-class movement, and impotence. The ground was prepared for the Provisionals’ campaign by the impotence, and by the attempts of the socialists to avoid the national question.

    As we saw, all the socialists, including the socialist Republicans, steered clear of the national question or renounced it (some of the Republicans hypocritically, tactically). That left the national question and “anti-imperialism” entirely in the hands of the Provisionals, on one side, and the Unionists on the other.

    No socialists, Marxist or other, attempted to work out a democratic programme that would allow workers on both sides to unite on an agreement to oppose oppression and the threat of oppression on both sides.

    At the end of the 1940s, the tiny Irish Trotskyist group — which had links with the “heterodox” Trotskyist of the US Workers’ Party (Shachtman) — had raised the idea of a federal united Ireland. But that was long forgotten.

    The Republican movement had come out of World War Two, in which it had allied with Germany, pulverised and seemingly defunct. It made a principle of physical force and of boycotting the various parliaments (Dublin, Belfast, London) and apart from that was “non-political”. In fact it reflected the right-wing, cold-war atmosphere of Catholic Ireland in the 40s and 50s.

    It revived slowly, and in 1956 launched a military campaign of small guerilla actions on the Border. That soon petered out. In 1962, a formal “ceasefire” was declared.

    Trying to learn from their experience, some of the leading activists turned “left” and began to talk of using social agitation to gain support for “the national struggle”. They drew on half-forgotten experiences of left-wing Republicanism in the 30s, when left-moving traditional Republicans met the right-moving Stalinised Communist Party of Ireland and together they created a sort of populist Republicanism.

    The immediate task was to win national independence (“the Republic”; for the Stalinists, “the bourgeois-democratic revolution”); then socialism would come at the next stage.

    The events of August 1969 changed the direction of the IRA too. They were largely irrelevant during the fighting. “Chief of Staff” Cathal Goulding was reduced to making idle public threats. Militants were told that the problem was that the IRA had lent its guns to the Free Wales Army!

    In December 1969 and January 1970 the Republican movement split. The break-aways were traditionalists. Many, like David O’Connell, were veterans of what little action there had been in the 50s. Others, like Joe Cahill — sentenced to death in 1942 but reprieved because of his age, while 19-year old Tom Williams was hanged — went back even further. They denounced the “communism” of the mainstream Republicans, though they too called themselves socialists, “democratic socialists”.

    The Provisionals’ prospects did not seem very bright: for example, J Bowyer Bell, the author of a learned academic study of the IRA published in 1970, dismissed them as a moribund relic of the past who could not keep up with the development of the mainstream.

    In fact the Provos grew with astonishing speed. They recruited rapidly from the disillusioned Catholic youth.

    Fianna Fail money helped launch the Provos (Fianna Fail was then as now the governing party in the Republic), but to explain the development of their movement as a result of ruling class divide-and-rule is self-evidently inadequate, and no more than a conspiracy theory of history. As well to explain the Russian Revolution as a German plot because the German general staff allowed Lenin to cross Germany in a sealed train.

    Fianna Fail wanted to split and stop the left-wing Republican movement. They did not want what the Provos very rapidly became.

    Eamonn McCann has graphically described the Provos’ appeal like this: whereas everyone talked about socialism and “imperialism”, but had nothing to suggest doing about it in the circumstances, the Provos could point to the British soldier standing at the local street corner and say: “There, that’s imperialism. Shoot it.”

    The determined avoidance of the national question by the left and the official Republicans — who consigned it to the distant future, together with a socialism that had to wait on the Protestant workers — ensured that the national question, which lay at the heart of the subordinate and oppressed position of the Catholics, was raised, when it inevitably forced its way to the front, in the Provos’ initially right-wing version.

    The Provos could, of course, also draw on the Catholic-Republican culture- songs, history, ingrained loyalties — with which the Catholic community was saturated. In late 1969 a staunch old-style Republican like ex-internee Sean Keenan, in Derry, seemed a respected anachronism; within a year or 18 months, people like that were the centre of a powerful movement which had taken in many of the radicalised youth eager to “shoot imperialism”.

    One consequence of this was that the Provisional Republican movement would itself become radicalised, especially in Belfast and Derry — though its radicalism was within the limits of one community.

    THERE are not many areas of political or social life in which Trotskyist groups have had the possibility of playing a decisive role and where they played a major role in large-scale struggle.

    There are two examples in the British Trotskyist movement. One is Militant, when it led the Labour council in Liverpool after 1984. The other is IS in relation to Ireland.

    The leaders of PD, which played a central and driving role up to August 1969, and an important, if a lesser one, after that were supporters of IS, and collaborated closely with the British organisation. Regular consultations took place.

    This relationship, which formally ended only in 1971, after the Provisional IRA war got going, is something that is deeply buried in the much-mythologised history of the tendency. Tony Cliff, in his autobiography, dealt with it to a considerable extent, but very strangely. We will later see what he has to say.

    The crisis in Northern Ireland brought to public attention in Britain by the events of 5 October in Derry, made Northern Ireland a major question of British politics.

    That was the situation in which IS turned its attention to the Irish question — not for the first time in the history of the tendency, as we’ll see, but anew.

    Irish emigration, mostly to the UK, had run at about a thousand a week for decades (out of a population of not quite three million), and there were massive Irish populations in British cities — about a million in London alone.

    We integrated easily, in conditions of full employment, and all the more so in that there were long-established Irish communities in British cities, and a vast layer of second and third generation Irish already settled. In a Connolly Association pamphlet in 1955, the organisation’s secretary reported that discrimination against Irish people in jobs and housing had largely ended after the beginning of full employment at the start of World War Two. It was the Connolly Association’s business to agitate against such discrimination, and, with the Communist Party and Labour Party networks to which the Connolly Association was connected, they would have known about it.

    Even at the height of the IRA bombing campaign in Britain, in the 1970s, there was no general backlash against Irish people.

    In British politics the Irish immigrants of London and the other cities were generally Labour — the “town labourers” from the small Irish towns, the surplus sons and daughters of small farmers who, under the system in which all the father’s property went to one child, the father’s choice, had nothing to inherit.

    In Liverpool, where Orange-Green, Protestant-Catholic sectarianism remained a force well into the 1960s, the Labour Party was heavily based on Irish Catholic-nationalist immigrants and their descendants.

    In terms of Irish politics, all Catholic migrants from Ireland brought with them some variant of Irish nationalism, tied to the memory, the history, and the legends of Ireland’s long oppression by England. From 26 Counties schools and from older relatives, they would have a picture of Partition as something imposed by British, and only the dimmest awareness of the rootedness of Partition in the distinctions of history and identity (as well as of the religion that was one strong expression of that identity) among the Irish.

    Catholics from the Six Counties would bring with them bitter memories of their second-class citizenship, and the conviction that the Irish-English conflict did not end with the establishment of the 26 Counties state in 1922.

    The events of October 1968 naturally aroused the interest and influenced the natural partisanship of Catholic-nationalist Irish people and, often, of their descendants in Britain. For IS it was an issue to which the young student membership, radicalised by the Vietnam war and by such things as the US civil rights movement, could be turned, and, thereby also turned to working class people.

    The Irish question had the advantage, politically, that Irish immigrants were workers. The newest arrivals were heavily concentrated in the building industry, but the whole large and continually growing Irish population was scattered right across British industry. Many, many such people had long been integrated into the British unions, as shop stewards, militants, or officials.

    It was a great opportunity. But IS had first to sort out its “line”.

    Could it simply endorse the nationalist political consciousness, soft or hardened version, of the Irish immigrants to which it turned? What would it say about Partition? What would it say to Protestant Irish workers?

    Anti-Partition had — since 1949: it can be dated exactly — been a greatly influential staple of agitation by the Communist Party and its Irish front, the Connolly Association, which influenced layers of the labour movement way beyond the CP; and there were earlier traditions of Anti-Partitionism in the labour movement too.

    IS first formally established its “line” on Ireland, and the political basis of the campaign on Ireland it simultaneously decided to launch, at its National Committee meeting at the beginning of January 1969. In fact the “line” had already appeared in Socialist Worker, in an article that was the basis of the committee discussion.

    The Socialist Worker article concluded with the demands on which IS was to campaign: “In this campaign. the best thing British socialists can do is demand:

    (1) The withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland;

    (2) An end to the supply of British military equipment to the Northern Irish Tory Party and paramilitary Black Hundreds, the B-Specials;

    (3) Stop British subsidies to the Tory police state of Northern Ireland”.

    In its text, the article explicitly eschewed a united Ireland, rejecting both “Thames and Tiber” — London and Rome – London, the Mecca of the Orangeists, and Rome, which (it was implied) controlled the Catholic 26 Counties.

    The third demand was a strange and rare one, and mystifying to many IS members. But most striking was what was absent from the list of demands.

    There were vaguely socialist ideas in the article, and the demand about troop withdrawal had nationalist implications. But self-determination for Ireland, as a whole? Support for a Workers’ Republic and those fighting for it? Neither! Why?

    The discussion at the January 1969 committee meeting would establish that these omissions were not just sloppiness, but choice. There the IS leaders would defend the omissions vehemently, and oppose any additions. The main leaders of IS would vote at that committee meeting against supporting self-determination for Ireland as a whole, and against IS agitating for a Workers’ Republic! IS’s response to the Northern Ireland crisis was a Unionist-Partitionist response! That NC meeting was the beginning of a wide discussion in the organisation that would last 18 months.

    In the next Solidarity I will describe the “first round” of the discussion which began at that committee meeting.

    Next article in series: The Irish Workers' Group, IS and the "Trotskyist Tendency": The Irish Crisis and the British Left 1968-70 — part 2

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.