SWP (IS) and Northern Ireland in 1968-9: Advocating civil war — until it starts!

Submitted by AWL on 17 December, 2007 - 9:40 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 6)

    Next article in series: ; Section 2 ; Section 3

    Click here for section 2 of this article

    This article reviews the way that the biggest activist-left group of the last 35 years or so in Britain — the SWP, then called IS — dealt with the biggest internal crisis the British state has seen since the early 1920s, the breakdown of Northern Ireland into civil war in 1969. It continues a series about the British left and the decisive early stages of the nearly 40 years of “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

    [This is an edited and augmented version of the text in Solidarity. It includes excerpts from the minutes of the leading committees of the International Socialist organisation, which are not in the version printed in Solidarity.]

    Previous articles have sketched the main events from the beginning of timid reform from above, to the emergence of a mass civil rights movement of the long-downtrodden Catholic minority in 1968, and the explosion into bloody communal conflict in 1969.

    They have also introduced the main political forces surveyed: the IS (forerunner of the SWP); the Trotskyist Tendency inside IS (forerunner of the AWL); and People’s Democracy (a loose left grouping set up in Belfast in 1968, where sympathisers of IS, especially Michael Farrell, were influential).

    Two important discussions on Ireland were held by IS at its Executive Committee in December 1968 and its National Committee in January. A campaign, of sorts, on Northern Ireland, arose out of those meetings’ decisions to focus on “Irish work”.

    For example, the Manchester branch (led by the Trotskyist Tendency) organised a march through the centre of the city. In those days Orangeism was still a power in Liverpool (as in Glasgow even now) and there were threats that the Orangeists would come and break up the demonstration. Nothing came of it.

    The march was moderately successful. Peter Graham of the Dublin Young Socialists and Michael Farrell of P D were advertised as speakers, though memory suggests that Farrell was too busy to come.

    Overall, the IS leaders were disappointed by the results of the campaign. Yet, there was, in fact, a great quickening of interest in Ireland then, on the left as well as in the mainstream press. The Connolly Association, the Communist Party’s Irish front group, run by Desmond Greaves, and its paper, Irish Democrat, continued to campaign on Northern Ireland. The Morning Star and the then-influential left-Labour weekly paper Tribune gave Ireland much attention.

    IS was a late-come interloper here, linked to people in Northern Ireland detested by the political friends of the Stalinists and of Tribune. Tribune’s correspondent in Northern Ireland was Andrew Boyd, an old and politically by no means ex Stalinist who in Tribune wrote about PD’s role in the Northern Ireland general election of February 1969, insinuationg that they were really out to help the Unionists. Tribune was calling for the threat of the withdrawal of British subsidies to Northern Ireland to be used to pressure O’Neill. But IS also called for “withdrawing subsidies” (not as a threat, but an immediate action by the British Government). From Tribune and the Stalinists, IS was distinguished primarily not by politics but by PD’s reckless militancy.

    Those who had their own campaigns on “Ulster” didn’t see any reason to involve themselves in IS’ s initiative. IS’ s membership was still very heavily student-based. The minutes of the May National Committee meeting record Tony Cliff reporting that the earlier Irish campaign had been a disappointing experience. (The failure of the campaign to “take off” may be the reason why the pamphlet written in January by Chris Gray and John Palmer, discussed in the last instalment of this series of articles, was not published until April, and then as an article in the magazine.

    The N I General Election

    In Northern Ireland, People’s Democracy was moving towards what would prove to be its peak period. In the Northern Ireland general election of 24 February, PD fielded eight candidates, with the proclaimed intention of challenging the so-called liberal Unionists around Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill.

    Michael Farrell stood against O’Neill in his Bannside constituency. So did Ian Paisley. Most of PD’s candidates did relatively well. One of them, the 22-year old Bernadette Devlin, did very well, getting 5812 votes in South Londonderry against 9195 for James Chichester-Clark, who would a couple of months later succeed O’Neill as Northern Ireland prime minister.

    On the strength of that performance as a PD candidate Devlin would soon be selected as the “Unity” candidate for a Westminster by-election in Mid Ulster, a seat which the Catholic majority in the electorate could win if it had “unity”, that is, one Catholic candidate.

    PD proposed the following programme to the electorate:
    • One man, one vote [i.e. for local government elections]
    • Repeal the Special Powers and Public Order Acts
    • Disband the B-Specials
    • A points system for housing, and a crash programme of housebuilding, linked to the demand that the Housing Trust debt to the central bank be cancelled
    • The direct intervention of the state in industry
    • Workers’ control in the factories
    • The break-up of large estates to enable small farmers to form co-operatives.

    This was far from radical in terms of policy. “State intervention” was simply left-Labour reformism. In Unionist Northern Ireland, state intervention was enormously important, including subsidies to industry. In principle it was supported by all political groupings. All PD was calling for was more of the same, and a “direct” state role in organising industry.

    PD did not go beyond the mainstream civil rights leaders, except for the demand for “workers’ control”, which, for the initiated, was a pseudonym for socialism and qualified the call for “state intervention”. (Vagueness in that area had been typical of IS/Socialist Review for the previous 15 or so years). It might also be argued that the break-up of large estates — as distinct from a socialist society using them as large agricultural production units — was, though PD saw it as the first stage to the creation of co-operatives, socially regressive.

    In any case, all this was quite a way from Socialist Worker’s call for an end to British subsidies for Northern Ireland.

    Simultaneously with focusing all effort on the election, PD denounced parliamentarism and electoral politics in the ultra-left fashion common on the revolutionary left then. A number of PD’s prominent people were avowed anarchists. “The forthcoming general election, like all elections in Northern Ireland”, wrote Socialist Worker on 15 February, reporting on PD’s activity and voicing its attitudes — and IS's own attitudes, then) “is essentially undemocratic. This is the main point which we [PD] want to highlight and change”.

    It needs to be remembered here that Northern Ireland’s by then notorious electoral frauds against the Catholics — Derry City was the most blatant example — were frauds in local government, and not in elections to the Northern Ireland parliament. PD’s denunciations were a repudiation of parliamentary democracy as such. This was an era when Tony Cliff could propose to the Easter 1969 IS conference that it need not answer the question of whether IS would back Labour in the next election because, instead of the election, it would demand a general strike!

    In fact PD did comparatively well. The eight PD candidates got 23,645 votes between them, an average of about 27% in the seats where they stood. In five they were the only candidates standing against the Unionists; in two, the only candidates standing against the official Nationalists; in one they stood against both Unionists and the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

    Eamonn McCann, who was allied to PD (and publicly identified as a "member" of a PD which didn't have formal members) but was more Trotskyist-minded, got 1,993 votes as the Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate against the middle class civil rights leader John Hume and Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer in Foyle (Derry).

    The big shift of workers’ votes was to Paisleyism and to SDLPism. In 1965, the official Unionists had won 38 seats and 59% of the vote. In 1969, they were reduced to 48%, and dissident Unionists won 19% of the vote. Critics of O’Neill’s reform policy, to whom he had refused official endorsement, were elected. The Northern Ireland Labour Party went down from 20% to 8% of the vote. Six of the MPs elected in February on various platforms — Nationalist, Independent, and Republican Labour — would come together to found the SDLP in August 1970.

    IS Interprets the N I Election Results

    What did SW make of the election results? It was delirious with joy! On 1 March 1969 Socialist Worker had a page one picture of placard-carrying PD members “picketing a police barracks in Armagh during the election”, and the headline: “PD election fight shakes Ulster Tories”. The PD vote had been a vote “to return the civil rights campaign to the streets”, wrote “Sean Reed” (Gery Lawless), overstating it somewhat.

    Reed: “A massive attempt to sway the ‘white negroes’ on John Bull’s Other Island behind the half-a-loaf policy of Tory prime minister O’Neill failed”, wrote Reed. “Catholic workers refused to follow the lead of the Catholic upper class. Not only has O’Neill-style Tory Unionism failed to win the Catholic vote, but the beginning of the end for the Green Tory Nationalists is in sight — with the start of a swing to the left, the real left”.

    This account was demagogy and political gobbledegook. Who expected the faltering O’Neill, or any conceivable Unionist Party, to win more than a few Catholic votes? Reed, and SW, were here celebrating the strength of communal separateness. If lots of Catholics had voted for reform Unionism, its socio-political significance would have been immense — and progressive even if we would have preferred them to vote for one of the left groups!

    When Reed deigned even to notice the Protestant-Unionists, he didn’t think about what was happening and what the troubles of O’Neill with his party must mean.

    PD had deliberately targeted O'Neill and the Unionist reformers. Not only was it dismissive of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Its stated objective in the general election was to use it to strike a mortal blow against, specifically, the reform — or, as McCann called them, the “half-a-loaf” — Unionists.

    Socialists should not and cannot let calculations about the effects on other parties determine whether or not we stand in elections. That would be to boycott ourselves. PD had every right to stand against O’Neill, for example, even if that let Ian Paisley win the seat.

    But PD’s avowed intention was to undermine the reform Unionists. That was something else again.

    Ian Paisley would allege on US television that before the election Bernadette Devlin came to his house and proposed to him collaboration to bring down O’Neill. I don’t know that this was ever denied. It does fit in with the logic of what PD said it was doing in the election.

    The NICRA Popular Front

    Most of the leaders of the broad civil rights movement were hostile to PD’s militancy (though Michael Farrell would soon win election to the executive of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association). NICRA was a very broad campaign coalition and PD’s militancy naturally attracted criticism from some figures in NICRA.

    PD’s involvement in NICRA, that is, in the broadest cross-class coalition, which included Catholic bourgeois and Catholic communalists, was a vexed question for the left. Eamonn McCann, for instance, questioned it. At a rally involving bourgeois politicians on the eve of the August eruption in Derry, McCann — who was always willing to discuss what he was doing that he shouldn’t and what he wasn’t doing that he should, but rarely drew practical conclusions from it — vowed publicly from the platform that it was the last cross-political, cross-class platform he would appear on. It wasn’t.

    Where did IS stand on PD and the broad civil rights movement? Socialist Worker headlined conflicts within NICRA on 22 March: “‘Free Speech’ — Moderates Move to Split Ulster Rights Campaign”. PD had announced plans to march to the Belfast Parliament on 29 March to protest against the Public Order Bill. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had agreed to jointly sponsor it, and some right-wingers had resigned from NICRA in protest.

    Here, in the guise of defending free speech within NICRA, Socialist Worker actually championed PD’s involvement in the cross-class civil rights popular front.
    SW of 29 March reported a day of protest with no violence, in six major centres. It was a triumph for PD, so SW believed. In Derry, over five thousand had joined the protest.

    Hob-nail Boots Or Slippers? Ultra-Leftism reigns

    “Sean Reed” quoted Eamonn McCann on the Unionist divisions. “We have been told that there are now two types of Unionist. One section want to walk over us with hob-nailed boots and the other section, led by O’Neill, want to walk over us in carpet slippers... The people of Derry are not going to allow anyone to walk over them ever again”.

    McCann, of course, meant the whole of what the rulers do to workers in class society, as well as the additional oppression in Northern Ireland by anti-Catholic discrimination. But in fact, on the immediate issues, the difference between the feeble reformist O’Neill and the anti-reformists was very important. The consequences of Paisleyite victory and the break-up of Unionism would be of enormous and, all in all, regressive consequence.

    This image of the slippers and the hobnailed boots echoed and re-echoed, and was used by others, including Bernadette Devlin, to whom it came to be attributed. In fact it epitomised the ultra-left nonsense at the centre of the thinking of PD, and, following after them, IS.

    To the 'Third Period" Stalinist proclamation that in Germany there was no difference between the Social Democrats — “the murderers of Rosa Luxemburg” — and Hitler’s fascism, Trotsky once replied that the difference was as that between slow poison or a bullet to the head. In practicethe it was the difference between certain death and having the chance to defend yourself.

    The difference between hobnailed boots and slippers as weapons is, therefore, immense. Hobnail boots can kick you to death! The image conflated the grievances of the Catholics that were remediable by reform (local government gerrymandering, for example) and hostility to Unionist rule of any sort.

    Hostility to Unionist rule was the beginning of wisdom, of course; but, within the Northern Ireland framework — which PD tacitly accepted — that just meant hostility to the rule of the majority. To make other than entirely communalist sense it had to be translated into opposition to the Northern Ireland state. Agitation like that stoked up grievances which no civil rights movement could satisfy which did not include the “civil right” to self-determination.

    Yet McCann, who coined the boots-and-slippers image, represented the left wing of the very amorphous PD, the best and clearest-minded of the PD leaders. He was also, importantly, the face of the Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists.

    Civil Rights and the South

    And what about the “other Ireland”, the part of the island ruled by the “Green Tories”? As a natural expression of its political opposition to both Orange and Green “Tories”, PD turned some of its attention to the 26 Counties. There too it tried to couch its politics as “civil rights”, championing the right of divorce, freedom from narrow Catholic censorship of literature, and the right to contraception (contraceptives were then illegal in the 26 Counties).

    PD, and IS following in its wake, now saw “civil rights” as an all-purpose political crowbar.

    SW of 12 April had a big front page picture of young women in Dublin behind a banner proclaiming “People’s Democracy”, and the headline: “Tories out, North and South”. A PD march from Belfast had arrived in Dublin. The article was by Eamonn McCann.

    The marchers had crossed the border chanting that slogan, “Tories out, North and South”. “The purpose of the march”, McCann wrote, “was to assert the fact that civil rights and social justice are denied to the working class of southern Ireland as much as to the workings in the North”.

    Divorce and censorship and birth control were indeed big issues in the South, but the statement was not true, other than in the sense that the basic socialist criticism of bourgeois society applied equally to South and North. McCann was using “civil rights” as an encoded synonym for all class oppression. It was an attempt to talk indirectly to the Northern Protestant workers.

    In fact it was to talk to them in gabbled whispers. What it shouted at the Protestants was that Catholic majority rule was indeed “Rome Rule”, and something to be feared and resisted.

    Like everything PD did, except the actions which sharpened communal polarisation, it was politically inept, with no real grip on what it tried to grapple with. At best the issues PD raised, in their appeal, were middle-class and intelligentsia issues. The egregious Cyril Toman was variously reported marching across the Border waving illegal condoms at the Gardai, or, on another account, waving a copy of an American novel, J P Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, which had been but no longer was banned in the 26 Counties.

    Moving outside the explosive communalism of the North, PD revealed itself, despite its leaders’ socialism, as a liberal student group. The figure of Toman, a future Sinn Fein parliamentary candidate, sums it up. Even the left-wing students in Dublin did not respond to PD’s call for a civil rights movement in the South.

    Socialist Worker Celebrates the Easter Rising

    All things Irish were now “in” for IS. For the first time in its 19 year history (under various titles), Socialist Worker celebrated the anniversary of the Easter Rising in April 1969, with an article by Gery Lawless and Chris Gray (SW, 12 April). It was a feeble pseudo-nationalist piece whose main element was an ignorant attack on Trotsky’s alleged attitude to 1916. It timidly rehashed stupid lies about Trotsky, which the Stalinists had purveyed for 40 years! SW would publish a letter by me in response, in which I quoted (courtesy of a translation by Sandra Milligan) a lot of Trotsky’s main article on 1916, which then had not yet been published in English.

    Eamonn McCann Reflects on the Civil Rights Movement

    SW’s coverage was not all trivialising nonsense. On 19 April Socialist Worker reprinted an important think-piece by Eamonn McCann from Ramparts, the journal of “the Londonderry Labour Party”.

    “The civil rights campaign focused around specific reformist demands such as ‘one man, one vote’ and ‘abolish the Special Powers Act’. But it was at bottom an elementary expression of discontent arising from a society which could not provide decent housing for its people nor provide any solution to the unemployment problem”.

    McCann quoted the Unionist MP Robin Baillie as saying that “one family, one house” and “one man, one job” were in Northern Ireland not reformist “but revolutionary” demands.

    All that was true. But the civil rights movement was a Catholic movement. To deepen civil rights to a social meaning and to a movement uniting Protestants and Catholics, that simply could not be done, however abstractly “logical” such a development from civil rights might be. From the starting point of civil rights and demands on jobs and housing posed as Catholic grievances a united working-class movement simply could not be built. It was already preposterous by that stage to imagine that it ever could. The socialists were trapped in the civil rights movement, and, whether they liked it or not, defined by it.

    The logical development from the Civil Rights movement was not towards generalised "Civil Rights" that could unite Catholic and Protestant workers by attacking the evils inflicted on Protestant and Catholic alike by capitalist society. It was towards "the national question" — towards the basic civil right which Northern Ireland's captive Catholics lacked: national self-determination. It was towards the Provisional IRA, which would emerge from the Stalinist-dominated Republican Movement in the following December.

    No social reforms were possible, McCann believed. The government could not deal with unemployment, he wrote, because “the lack of investment in Northern Ireland in this period is linked to the general crisis in Britain which... is also having a catastrophic effect in the South”.

    On this the eclectic McCann was repeating the line of the main “Trotskyist” organisation at the time in Britain, the Socialist Labour League (later WRP) of Gerry Healy. (SLL leader Cliff Slaughter had recently visited Northern Ireland). Here “the crisis” was used to impose a false frame on Northern Ireland politics. In fact much in the way of reform was possible; and anyway, the implication that “crisis” meant that civil rights demands were socialist demands simply did not follow. If “the crisis” were squeezing Northern Ireland that hard, it would have meant greatly increased communal polarisation, as the working-class Protestants desperately held on to their relative advantages.

    Neither the premiss (“the crisis”) nor the conclusion (workers will be forced to unite) had any basis in reality. The “crisis” argument was only an additional element in the ultra-left phrase-mongering.

    Derry was the storm centre of the real “crisis” affecting Northern Ireland. On 19-20 April Derry erupted again into serious fighting. Barricades were erected. The people of the Bogside moved en masse up to the nearby Catholic Creggan estate and gave the RUC an ultimatum to leave the Bogside in two hours. They won an important victory over the RUC. It was the dress rehearsal for what would happen in August.

    Troops Out!

    And “Troops Out” reached the front page of Socialist Worker for the first time. British troops had been sent to guard power stations after an Ulster Volunteer Force bomb attack on one. They were there, said SW, to free the RUC to be able to beat down the Catholics.

    IS’s evaluation of the role of British troops — that they could only be an auxiliary to help the hard-line Unionists beat down the Catholics in revolt — was bizarrely divorced from the reality of what was going on between the London and Belfast governments. They would repeat that analysis again and again until they turned round 180 degrees in August. The false evaluation, shaped by the needs of demagogic agitation more than by any analysis, prepared the sudden political collapse IS would experience in August, when the troops would visibly play a very different role from the scenario IS had written for them.

    SW, 26 April: the troop deployment “is an ominous threat to the embattled people of the Six Counties fighting for their basic civil rights”. Troops “will free the brutal RUC and the even more thuggish B-Specials to attack demonstrators. There is little doubt that the acts of sabotage were caried out by extreme Paisleyites in order to bring in British troops who could be used to put down the people if civil war should break out. Socialist Worker demands the immediate withdrawal of British troops and expresses its complete solidarity with the heroic workers of beleaguered Derry”.

    The idea that the British Army, the tool of the government whose pressure — by now, open and explicit pressure — for reforms in Northern Ireland had destabilised the old system, would be an auxiliary to the RUC and B Specials in crushing the Catholics as they had been crushed in 1920-22, at the birth of the Six Counties state, was politically idiotic. Talk of “the people”, without reference to the fact that there was communalism — in fact, two “peoples” — was an enormous ideological and social lie.

    The “troops out” piece was a sort of editorial, preceding the main article, entitled “Police Terror in Bogside, by Eamonn McCann and Sean Reed”. The article is important in showing what IS was saying before August, but we will see that it was not written by McCann and Reed, but by Reed.

    The Shadow of Communal Civil War

    A demonstration which had taken place on 19 April was described as insurrectionary and an attempt by Derry to secede from the Northern Ireland state.

    “The moderate leadership of the civil rights movement was swamped last weekend as the people of Bogside fought to defend their area against the RUC”. They fought off riot police were “sticks, stones, and petrol bombs”. Appeals to “go home in peace” from John Hume and the Citizens’ Action Committee were ignored and “howled down”.

    The government had banned a proposed march from Burntollet to Derry. Baton charges, water cannon, and armoured cars were deployed. One armoured car was set on fire. The RUC fired five or six shots at random. After several hours fighting, the riot squad took the Bogside.

    On Sunday morning, the Bogsiders evacuated the area. “Men, women, and children moved to the Creggan Heights”. There was a mass meeting, with ten thousand people from the Creggan Estate. The RUC were given two hours to leave the Bogside. They withdrew, in return for an assurance that barricades would not be re-erected, and there was a brittle truce.

    The street resistance committees of January were reactivated. Any “future attack will be met with organised and disciplined resistance”. Because the police used guns, there were now calls, from Bernadette Devlin (a PD member elected as Westminster MP for Mid-Ulster in a by-election on 17 April) and others, for a “Citizens’ Army”.

    The picture painted by SW had important elements of what happened, and of Northern Ireland politics, missing: notably, the role of John Hume, who suggested the withdrawal to Creggan and negotiated the RUC withdrawal from the Bogside. Hume would be one of the architects of the Catholic constitutional party, the SDLP.

    “In the long term”, the article said, British prime minister Harold Wilson’s decision to send the troops to guard the power stations was “an assertion that British capitalism will intervene more and more directly if O’Neill fails to maintain ‘law and order’.”

    That is, on SW’s reading, the troops would intervene in alliance with the hard Unionists to repress the Catholics.

    What must be done in Britain? “British socialists must organised to struggle for the withdrawal of British troops... which are being used to release RUC and B-Specials to suppress Derry. Only a major and immediate mobilisation to this end can have any real meaning...”

    The perspective was of Britain reinforcing an Orange regime more repressive than any since 1921. No wonder the IS leaders were bowled over by the reality of British troops after 14 August, and the initial Catholic welcome for them.
    “Socialists and civil rights supporters in the Six Counties must mount a campaign to lift the pressure on Derry by drawing off as many police as possible...”

    How? By demonstrating, rioting, attacking police stations: what else? Whether one thinks this call necessary or not, it is a call for generalised civil war.

    Guns from The Southern Arsenals?

    “Comrades in the South should raise the demand that the Green Tory government arms Derry. Their refusal to do so can be used to expose their complicity in the oppression and their role as commission agents for British imperialism”.

    The situation in Derry on 19-20 April was one of low-level civil war in one city. It was quietened by the efforts of the “moderates” like John Hume, and the decision of the RUC to vacate the Bogside. What if it had not been quietened?

    The events of mid-August showed what that would have meant. Fighting would have spread beyond Derry, as it did in August, most importantly to Belfast. If the British Army would not “intervene” in such a situation, that would mean that the communal civil war would take its course. (Socialist Worker’s way of putting it — “British capitalism will intervene” — is an example of the mind-rotting demagogy in which SW dealt).

    The call for opening the arsenals in the South to Northern Catholics was a call adapted to a situation of civil war. In August, the 26 Counties army would set up camps on the Border where Catholics from the Six Counties would be given military training. Money would be provided. Some government ministers, including future Taoiseach Charles Haughey, would set about importing guns — and find themselves dismissed from government and put on trial in Dublin for it.

    The call for arms from Dublin, SW explained, would “expose” the Southern government. "Expose" them as what? As not nationalist enough? Not nationalist enough to do what? Just to hand out guns? Attack the Six Counties? Move to take over Derry, incorporating the Catholic majority city on the border into the 26 Counties state? Arm the Northern Catholics to do that?

    Whether one thinks it right or wrong, this was an Old-Fianna Fail (DeValera's party, the party running the Southern Government), an incipient Provisional-IRA, idea. The Provisionals who, with help from some Fianna Fail leaders, would soon emerge.

    “If it comes to civil war”, the article continued, “then only the united action of all the British working people and their allies can provide the material base to resist Orange reaction and their Westminster supporters”. That could mean anything from collecting money to gun-running, to opening a “second front” in Britain by bomb attacks on police stations, which is what was in effect advocated for Northern Ireland outside Derry.

    Advocating Civil War

    Whether one thinks such calls necessary or foolish — what were they if not a plain perspective, and more or less open advocacy, of civil war?

    In such a conflict as the article advocated, or at the very least saw as the logical and necessary development of the existing Northern Ireland Catholic movement, what should be the objective, politically, of the Catholics, or of the socialists on their side?

    To conquer the Protestants? To have Dublin replace Britain in control? To bring in UN troops (the Dublin government would propose that, in August and after)? To divide the territory of Northern Ireland?

    The politics here were undilutedly the politics of the Haughey-Boland wing of the party in power in the South — the Fianna Fail “Green Tories”.

    Eamonn McCann did not co-author this article with Gery Lawless. He would repudiate its call for the South to provide arms.

    Whatever the reasons for the delay, five issues of Socialist Worker later, on 5 June, Eamonn McCann had a letter in SW: “Derry: the wrong demand”. McCann said that the 26 April article “by Eamonn McCann and Sean Reed”, had in fact been two separate articles amalgamated into one.

    “Mr Reed contributed the demand that the Southern government arm the Derry workers. It was not a demand that I would raise”. Coincidentally or not, there would be a lot less of “Sean Reed” in SW from now on.

    Now I S’s line was about to be modified, somewhat.

    After the initial discussions in Dec and January, the “line” was set for some months. The campaign associated with it had been disappointing. Cliff summed up that experience at the N C: “TC introduced the discussion — he said that our probing into the Irish situation some months ago had been unsuccessful. Demonstrations and meetings had been small.” (May 17th N C Minutes)

    The IS NC Again Discusses Ireland

    The next important discussion at the NC took place on March 15th. The minutes record: Comrade Palmer opened the discussion and revealed that a meeting of revolutionary groups, North and South, would soon be held to form a united movement. It was generally agreed that this organisation should be fairly open and flexible in its programme.” (In its programme – not in its organisation: all such efforts controlled by IS and its Northern comrades were organised, as we will see, to exclude the Southern Irish Trotskyists, those of the League for a Workers’ Republic.)

    Minutes: "An outline was given of the situation in PD. It was stated, that the difference between, on the one hand, the ‘Demonstrations’ wing (who had no perspective other than bigger and better demonstrations) and, on the other the Conciliatory Wing (which is likely to succumb to the reformist gestures of the Government) could break the organisation. In this situation it is all the more important to inject political ideas".

    Minutes: "Comrade Matgamna said that P D was similar in many ways to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (in Britain) and that we should encourage links between the revolutionary elements in Dublin and Derry... which in turn would bring more pressure to bear on the middle class activity in Belfast. He concluded by saying that the attitude adopted by this NC would be vital to the development of an Irish revolutionary movement.” (I doubt that I said “middle class” here. Most likely I said “petty bourgeois”, which is for Marxists a political concept as well as a social category.)

    The NC discussed a resolution from Constance Lever and Noel Tracey, members of the “Democratic Centralist Faction” [One of whose members was Ian Birchall, future historian of the Cliff organisation]:

    “The NC resolves that the Group should take the initiative in the formation of a united front, single issue campaign, based on the following slogans:

    1. Withdrawal of all British troops and subsidies from the 6 Counties;
    2. The repeal of the Special Powers Act;
    3. Critical Support of the People's Democracy;
    4. For a United Workers’ Republic.

    And, B: That the Group should bring its influence to bear openly [emphasis in original] for the creation of a united Irish Revolutionary organisation, to which IS would offer fraternal links. There will be no dual membership [of IS members] in the Irish organisation.”

    The first paragraph was amended to read: “The NC resolves that the group should take the initiative in the formation of local ad-hoc committees in areas of Irish concentrations as and when the issues arise, based on the following slogans...” [As above]

    The second paragraph, B, was carried by 19 votes to 14, with 3 abstentions. Those voting against paragraph B included the following: Cliff, Palmer, Michael Kidron, Paul Foot, Jim Higgins, Richard Kuper, and SW Editor Roger Protz. (Having voted against the amendment, I abstained on the final vote.)

    Thus, almost casually, the Workers Republic as a central slogan, rejected by the Chairman’s (Jim Higgins’) second, tie-breaking, vote in January, was now IS policy. Was it? As we’ll see, not really!

    The EC, members (apart from Constance Lever), those who ran I S’s work day to day, had all voted against Paragraph B. What did that mean? That it was a dead letter! The EC people could ignore it, and did.

    Unite the Irish Left?

    My own attitude here, and throughout the year was that one of our central responsibilities was to unite the revolutionary left in Ireland. I had never believed that the split in the IWG made political sense. That had been initiated and consummated by IS and its ally Lawless. Events in Ireland since March 1968 had reinforced me in the view that it made no sense. This viewpoint shaped much that the TT did and said in 1969.

    Certainly I believed that Trotskyist politics, as distinct from those of the IS people leading PD and those of Cliff-Palmer in IS, would be best served by such a united organisation, assuming that there was a democratic internal life in it. But that was not the only, or the fundamental consideration.

    The sizable number of radicalised young people in both the North and South of Ireland had nowhere to go politically, except the Republican movement and the then quite vigorous Stalinist youth group, the Connolly Youth Movement, which was affiliated to the 26 County Irish Workers’ Party (it would unite with the Communist Party of Northern Ireland in 1970 to form an all-Ireland Communist Party). Tremendous opportunities were being missed to build a Revolutionary Marxist organisation.

    The Southern Irish comrades of the Trotskyist Tendency, the LWR, were far from keen on unity; and Cliff and Palmer worked relentlessly against it. Early in the year, January or February, perhaps, I persuaded Paddy Healy, the Secretary of the LWR, to come to a conference on Ireland (I can’t remember what exactly) and arranged a discussion between Cliff and himself. For reasons that were never explained, when it came to it, at the Conway Hall, Cliff, grim faced and scowling, hurried past us, refusing to talk to him. There was routine factionalism, fierce factionalism, double Oedipus complex factionalism – and then there was Cliff factionalism... I will return to this question.

    IS Acquires An M P Of "Its Own"

    But now (on 17 April) Bernadette Devlin, a prominent P D leader, was elected to Westminster as Unity (Catholic Unity) MP for Mid Ulster. She was willing, indeed, keen, to work with IS in London. She made a big impact in the House of Commons with her “maiden speech”. She was feted by the bourgeois press, and even by Tribune, whose correspondent Andrew Boyd had recently thrown Stalinoid aspersions at PD’s leaders for standing in the Northern Ireland general election. For a while Bernadette Devlin behaved as an IS MP — a “Trotskisant” MP elected as a communal-nationalist candidate!

    It changed everything for IS. A new era of “Irish work” seemed to be opening.

    At the Executive Committee on April 28th, John Palmer suggesting a public meeting to be jointly sponsored by IS and PD, with Bernadette Devlin as the main speaker. Now an “Irish Campaign” seemed feasible to I S’s leaders.

    The Executive Committee of May 5th decided that IS would help PD launch a socialist paper (in fact nothing would happen here for months), and discussed the basis of a new Irish Campaign in Britain.

    A New IS "Irish Campaign"

    It should, John Palmer asserted, be a campaign around a basic programme, but “not committed to a precise plan or a precise objective because of the imponderable (!) situation in Derry. The EC agreed on the following demands for the campaign:
    1. The withdrawal of British Troops;
    2. Solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement;
    3. For a United Socialist Republic.

    The “Withdraw Subsidies” demand — the demand for the expulsion of the 6 County working class from the British welfare State, had vanished... As almost invariably was the case in such shifts, no explanation of the shift was given. The past? For IS, the past — that, so to speak, was a different organisation!

    At the NC on May 17th, in Palmer’s absence, Cliff introduced the report on Irish work. I have already quoted his balance sheet on the Irish campaign launched in Dec-Jan. Cliff is minuted:

    Cliff: “... With the election of Bernadette Devlin and her determination to get Irish workers over here involved in the Irish situation, meetings had been much larger and Comrade Devlin had been working with the Group to organise these meetings.” A new start was possible. “Comrade Cliff said that the intention was to make these meetings as broad as possible, with volunteers from Peoples Democracy and other organisations making up a large organising committee”

    The model here was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which, at its peak, had organised demonstrations of upwards of 100,000 people.

    Not Uniting the Irish Revolutionary Left...

    Cliff reported that the present lull in events in NI had led the left wing of PD to think very seriously about their organisation. "Comrades Devlin, Farrell and McCann felt it was important to link up the left wing in both Northern and Southern Ireland and that a paper was needed as their organiser. A conference in Belfast this weekend was attempting to set up a national organisation.”

    In fact it had been organised to deliberately exclude the only Trotskyists in the South, the League For a Workers Republic. The minutes, inadvertently, show just how much Cliff (who had lived in Dublin from 1947 to 1951) knew about affairs in Ireland.

    Minutes: Cliff told the NC: “There was some support in the South among Republicans and the Sinn Fein for the Civil Rights movement in NI.”

    In fact they were amongst its organisers and most important and well-organised militants...

    A motion from Constance Lever followed Cliff’s report: “The NC instructs the EC to envisage the Irish Campaign as a serious long-term campaign to be integrated with our industrial work.” Cliff objected to the words long-term!

    EC, 19th May: Palmer reported that a “Revolutionary Socialist Alliance” had been set up. But this was never more than a name.

    N I C R A and The IS Campaign In London

    EC, 26th May: John Palmer reported that the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign would have its first meeting in two days' time. There was agreement that IS should play a key role in launching the ICRSC. But, the EC agreed with Palmer that after launching it on its way, I S’s role would be to put forward a clear minority view within the Campaign. The Campaign would be on a minimum programme.

    Palmer and Reed were to see if collaboration with Northern Irish Civil Rights Association was possible for their planned [London] rally on June 22nd. If not possible a meeting should be organised by ICRSC on about the same date.

    A resolution from the Kilburn branch asked for clarification on Bernadette Devlin and the ICRSC. In reply it was felt that it was necessary to stress that Comrade Devlin was not a group member, and the ICRSC was not a group Front.

    EC, June 2nd: Palmer reported that NICRA was suspicious of ICRSC, but willing to accept both [Michael] Farrell and [Bernadette] Devlin as speakers.

    NC, June 7th: “Cde Palmer reported that ICRSC set up to draw left organisations and left groups together to mobilise Irish workers on a programme similar to PD’s in Ireland.”

    The Workers Republic Lost Again

    “Cde [Constance} Lever wanted to know what had become of our demand for a United Socialist Ireland in the Campaign programme.

    "Cde Cliff said that the programme of the ICRSC was the programme of the PD, which is the only meaningful organisation in Ireland at the moment. This was not our campaign, we participate as a minority.” !

    The truth seems to that Cliff and Palmer bought into the fantasy of a new vast campaign, like the anti-Vietnam-was campaign (which had declined greatly in the previous year or so). Whether this produced the fantastic picture of Northern Ireland they held to, or was its result, I don’t know. It was however always their way to wrap theories and analysis around crude organisationional calculations and hopes.

    As we will see the joke here turned out to be PD’s decision, a few months later, after it had turned socialist, to repudiate the ICRSC as too broad and right wing!

    Minutes: “Several comrades felt that we should make our politics clear within the Campaign. They also felt that we should have been more critical of B. Devlin in SW. Cde. Palmer said that IS as part of the Solidarity Campaign remains free to put forward the demand for a Workers Republic”.

    The TT pamphlet, from which most of these quotations are taken, commented: “But of course the first time IS did so in SW was in the special issue in August. By then the leadership seemed to think that the road to the Workers Republic was lined with British soldiers gallantly protecting defenceless Catholics from Orange thugs: not only a Workers' Republic, but an exclusively Catholic Workers' Republic at that!"

    John Palmer Explains the E C View of the I C R S C to the Members of I S

    The sheer artificiality of the enterprise is summed up in the notion that IS would assume a minority role in the campaign where it would be the main grouping, and whose “minimum” programme it had decided on. This was mummery rather than any real “united front”. Politically the ICRSC would not differ much from the other “Irish” groups — for instance, from the Connolly Association, the C P’s front organisation. It would differentiate itself by way of what? Vicariously, by association with PD’s “militancy.”

    The EC on June 16th would approve a circular to branches by John Palmer on the Irish Campaign. It is best considered here. On the nature of the Campaign, Palmer insisted that:

    “The Campaign is a united front. Its aims are limited to solidarity with the Civil Rights struggle in Ireland... The election of Bernadette Devlin clearly caught the imagination of the Irish in Britain. Her militant Civil Rights stand and her socialist platform in Mid-Ulster [?] led her to want to launch an extra-Parliamentary campaign in Britain. Cdes in the PD in Northern Ireland advised her to work with IS. IS set up a number of mass meetings, including factory and building site meetings.

    "A few months ago, the London Branch of the PD, many of whose members are sympathetic to IS, decided to join the Campaign. Our objective is to convene mass meetings in Irish working class areas. Since they are called by the ICRSC, these meetings are not IS fronts.

    "Initially our comrades will have to get the snowball going but will aim to become a minority in each local branch of the Campaign... In addition to Executive representation for Campaign branch members, provision as in VSC will be made for 33 (thirty three) representatives of all organisations willing to be active in the campaign. The support of other left groups, as well as the CP, Republican organisations and others will be sought. A federal principle will operate in the Campaign, since it is not a political party.”

    We have got ahead of the story somewhat, and must backtrack to pick up the thread of Socialist Worker’s coverage again.

    A Self-Portrait By Bernadette Devlin

    On 1 May the back page of SW carried an interview, by “Sean Reed”, with Bernadette Devlin. It showed the naivety, and the political rawness and ignorance of even the best of P D’s young people.

    Despite projecting the appeal of a small, pert, clever, questioning schoolgirl, Devlin was in fact a canny university student of psychology. At 22 she looked like Tenniel’s drawing of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, slightly raddled. And she could talk! She seemed, and, politically, probably was, sincere and earnest. There was a ring of genuineness about her, and her actions matched her words. In mid-1970, she would start a six month sentence in Armagh Jail for her part in defending the Bogside in August 1969.

    After her election, Devlin for a while worked with IS in London, speaking at meetings and drumming up press interest. She was a major asset to IS, opening new prospects for “Irish work".

    Her dilemma was that like McCann she was, part of a Catholic civil rights movement that could not transcend its base. Its left wing could not transcend it either, whatever talk it talked about Protestant workers and socialism. “Unity” M P of the Catholics in Mid Ulster, she claimed that some Protestants had voted for her, and that may have been true; but it wasn’t fundamental. It changed nothing.

    Her interview with “Sean Reed” in Socialist Worker offered a portrait of the politics which IS was now purveying.

    Was she a revolutionary socialist, asked Reed. “I have never read Marx, but I have read James Connolly, and if James Connolly was a revolutionary socialist, then so am I”. (This mix of disarming naivety, evasion, and keeping options open with the “if” was typical of Devlin).

    Was she a Catholic, and if so, how did she square that with her socialism? “Connolly did. I believe in the separation of Church and State. I take my religion from Rome, not my politics...” That is what Daniel O’Connell had said when organising the Catholics of Ireland for “civil rights” in the early 19th century.

    Was Connolly her hero? “Connolly and Countess Markievicz. Don’t forget that I’m a woman”.

    Was she for a united Ireland? No, she was not for a united Ireland short of socialism:

    “I stand for a socialist workers’ republic. That is what we mean by the slogan ‘Tories Out North and South’.”

    Did she see a need for a revolutionary socialist organisation?

    “There is no real socialist outfit in Ireland, and I believe there is a need for one, but I can’t see how I could go about building one.” “I”….

    What other than Ireland would she raise at Westminster? “The Tinkers [Irish travellers; non-Roma ‘gypsies’] and the woman question. I support equal rights for women. That is why the slogan ‘one man, one vote’ has worried me”.

    “You said last week that you thought civil war was beginning in Ulster. Do you still think so?” “I thought it was coming when I saw the voting results in mid-Ulster. We did not get a pan-Popish vote”. Devlin had got, she said, more votes than there were Catholics on the electoral register. “We know that the Catholic upper class voted Tory, so we got about 1500 Protestant votes. The Unionists would not, they could not, allow this process to go on”.

    “You mean that the government will provoke civil war?” “We want civil rights not civil war. It is the Tory landlords and bosses who will be responsible”.

    What had she meant by her call in Derry for a Citizen Army? “I mean that the people of Bogside should prepare to organise and resist any attempt at repression. Street defense committees should be formed, missiles stacked...”

    Click here for section 2 of this article: Bernadette Devlin Speaks for the Workers Republic.

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