This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 6, section 2)
Next article in this series: Part 7: The end of the old order in Northern Ireland
Bernadette Devlin Speaks for the Workers Republic.
IS was now running a campaign of Bernadette Devlin meetings and setting up its “front” Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign, on the strength of Devlin’s pulling power at meetings. The brave and clever “little girl” with her not too well defined “idealism” caught the imagination of people who would not have responded to Socialist Worker.
SW of 8 May carried a page one picture of Bernadette Devlin, “the 22 year old civil rights MP”, at a hospital building site in London, and at CAV Lucas in Acton. (After August, IS would lose its “base” and its leading militant at CAV Lucas, Tom Hillier, because of its change of line on the troops. Hillier would rejoin the Healy organisation).
A boxed announcement in SW declared that CAV Lucas “readers of Socialist Worker” “congratulate Bernadette Devin on her historic victory over the Unionists in mid-Ulster. Towards the people’s democracy and civil rights! Down with Tories, Orange and Green — for a united socialist Ireland under workers’ control!”.
In January 1969, the IS leadership had fought hard and successfully to stop the IS National Committee adopting the Workers’ Republic as an I S campaign slogan on Ireland, but in Devlin’s speeches socialism and the Workers’ Republic were very much to the fore. On 22 May Socialist Worker reported: “Big meeting rallies to Bernadette”. The “Socialist Worker reporter” acclaimed the Fulham Town Hall meeting.
Devlin: “Westminster doesn’t like publicity for their dirty backyard"... To questions about the Border, [Devlin] said that she "believe[d] ultimately in the need for a united Irish socialist republic in the James Connolly tradition. But the privileged position of the Catholic Church in the south was an obstacle to such unity. She understood the reluctance of Northern Protestant workers to [face] domination by the Church.”
“The audience was lively and militant. Every mention of James Connolly and an Irish workers’ republic brought sustained applause”. (The report reads like John Palmer).
I S's Perspectives For Northern Ireland
A Socialist Worker lead article (12 June) by John Palmer called on readers to “Build the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign”.
The civil rights movement had granted a truce to the new Northern Ireland prime minister, James Chichester-Clark (who had replaced his cousin Terence O’Neill as N I Prime Minister on May 1).
“The Unionists have little interest in meeting the basic demands of the civil rights movement”. “Hardliner” Brian Faulkner had been appointed to preside over an examination of electoral boundary changes (to remedy the gerrymandered boundaries). Palmer thought no change was possible.
In fact, by that time, the “political” demands of civil rights were within sight of carying the day in official Northern Ireland politics. But Palmer insisted that the Unionists would never lessen the sectarian grip on many local Councils, for fear of splitting their own ranks.
“Even less has been done to provide jobs for ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ areas alike. Not that much could be done within the paralysing grip of the crisis of declining capitalism in Northern Ireland”. This is Palmer as demagogue, reaching out for the Third Period Stalinist nonsense of the "orthodox Trotskyist" SLL. (Notice that the “withdraw subsidies” demand has been dropped).
The Unionists won’t disband the “Paisleyite” B-Specials, wrote Palmer. One direction in which this picture of Unionist obduracy pointed was towards calling for British direct rule, which was now the “demand” of the Labour left around Tribune. But Palmer did not make that call. He was blocked from it by the repeated assertion that the British troops could only be used to help Orange diehards repress the Catholics — that is, by a piece of concocted “agitational” nonsense.
Typically, Palmer was still misrepresenting what was happening as a conflict between “the people” in general and “Tories”. “The working people of Northern Ireland have been remarkably patient. But there can be no doubt that the civil rights movement, spearheaded by its militant wing, People’s Democracy, will take to the streets”. They will meet “ferocious repression from the B-Specials and Paisleyite bully-boys. Thus the need for a mass solidarity movement in Britain”.
Politically, that meant what? A movement to do what? Collect money? Send volunteers to defend the civil rights people? Press the British government to intervene more? It could mean any or all of those things. Despite the eternal demagogic playing with feelings and hopes, IS kept its political options open. This shilly-shallying was quintessential IS (or, as the Trotskyist Tendency insisted, “centrist”).
The too-subtle Palmer may well at that point not have known quite what he wanted. But by June 1969 the idea that civil rights activists “taking to the streets” could mean anything but sharpened polarisation and communal clashes was preposterous, if not simply demented.
Plainly Palmer knew that; he disguised the reality by talking of “Paisleyites”. The Paisleyites would be in the forefront, but by now they headed a large constituency, and one that would grow with “the politics of the street”.
The Platforn Of The I C R S C
Palmer reported that the ICRSC now planned meetings with Bernadette Devlin in other major cities. Membership was open to all who supported “the six demands of the militant civil rights movement”:
1. One person, one equal vote
2. One family, one house
3. One man, one job
4. Disarm and disband the B-Specials
5. Disarm and disband the RUC
6. For the right of the whole Irish people to national self-determination.
And the Workers Republic? “Of course socialists within this campaign will not abandon their advocacy of the Irish workers’ republic as the only viable path for Catholic and Protestant workers in Ireland”. The meaning of this setting-aside of the call for a workers’ republic, though talk of it was now a central part of the meetings IS was organising with Bernadette Devlin, was that IS hoped for a more nationalist civil rights movement.
The campaign, wrote Palmer, would also attack “abuses” in the Southern state. The main emphasis would be on the North. ICRSC was supporting the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association rally in Trafalgar Square on 22 June.
Irish nationalism was explicitly now central to I S’s politics on Ireland. “The need now is for every section of the revolutionary left in Britain to practice what it preaches about solidarity with workers fighting in countries dominated by imperialism. Ireland is on our doorstep. The outcome of the struggle there is bound to have a profound impact on the development of the struggle in Britain itself”.
The mental slipping and sliding, the sleight of mind, and the demagogy, suffuse everything here: the solidarity was actually with the oppressed Catholics of all classes, not with “workers” as such.
SW of 26 June reported, with a picture of Michael Foot speaking at the Trafalgar Square rally: “1,500 back Irish civil rights rally”.
1,500 was in fact a miserable turnout given the prominence of the issue and the organisations backing the demonstration: NICRA, the Connolly Association, the Tribune left (including its MPs, such as Foot), and I S’s front, the ICRSC.
Bernadette Devlin, speaking at the rally, was both messianic and obtusely “economistic”. The problems of Northern Ireland, she said, were “economic, not religious”.
Devlin was beginning to talk of herself now very grandly indeed. “We have forsaken the politicians at Westminster who don’t care a damn, and we have come to you, who make up the working people of this country. If you don’t stand by us, we stand alone”.
The implication here was that “Westminster” was not a factor or a force in events in Northern Ireland. It was the “Catholic economism” of IS rendered nonsensically explicit: politics, the state, were faded out. But like so much else, it was just talk. When the fighting started in Derry in August, Devlin and Eamonn McCann would issue a statement calling for British government intervention. Politics and the state did exist, after all.
Looming Civil War
In Northern Ireland, things were moving inexorably to the eruption of August. In Strabane, a Catholic town in Tyrone, near the Border, at the end of June, five thousand people attended a civil rights rally on whose platform stood all the right-wing and left-wing civil rights leaders, including McCann, Devlin, and Farrell.
Both McCann and, more so, Devlin denounced nationalists and others there on the same platform, as exploiters and Catholic sectarians.
SW’s coverage of events was skimpy and selective, and from it you would not be able to form a lucid picture of what was going on in Northern Ireland. But SW did report on some of the gathering elements of civil war, as in a round-up of events in SW of 17 July.
It used the usual and by now very stale anti-Orangeist demagogic stuff to obscure what was going on: 12 July would be the date of the “annual marches of the beer-swilling boys of the quasi-secret, drum-beating, Catholic-baiting Orange Order, which rules Ulster in partnership with Northern Ireland big business and British imperialism”.
The equation of Protestant communalism with “big business” and “imperialism” missed all the very important differences and nuances of difference in Northern Ireland politics. It was of a piece with the identification of Britain, and British capitalism, and capitalism, with Orange reaction. To accept this picture was to be utterly surprised by what would happen in August and after, when the British army initially defended the Catholics and began to disarm the B Specials.
But the article also, in its way, took stock of the results of Derry’s experience since 5 October. It was a sort of summary of the results of the activities of PD and the broader civil rights movement.
On 12 July there had been an attempt at a “pogrom” “against a Catholic working-class housing estate in Lurgan”.
There had been “full-scale fighting in Derry City”, Catholic youth facing the RUC with its guns and armoured cars.
In Lurgan barricades had been erected. In Dungiven the Orange Parade was attacked, and “townspeople” fired the Orange hall with half a dozen police inside it. There were many such incidents. Though you’d have to work at it a little — translate it, so to speak — this picture showed that Catholic sectarianism existed, too. Of P D and I ,McCann was the only one who tried to take account of, or even define, it.
In Derry, a Union Jack over the civic bathhouse started it. “This, with stones thrown by Paisleyites and the knowledge of what was happening in ghettoes elsewhere, brought Catholic youths, with some small Protestant support, out on the streets in some of the toughest and best organised fighting that this city has seen”, with stones and Molotov cocktails.
The statement about “with some small Protestant support” either refers to an odd left wing Protestant, or is straight invention — in either case it is a substantive lie.
The RUC fired and wounded two youths, reported SW. A big “blitz of petrol bombs” followed. An armoured car and a troop carrier were destroyed.
Charges drove the police back from Guildhall Square to the doors of the RUC barracks. Helmeted, riot-shield-carrying police attacked again in Guildhall Square. Younger kids carried petrol bombs and stones for the older ones.
“One of the most significant facts of the weekend’s incidents in Derry has been the fighting ability of the youngsters. The people of Derry are getting up off their knees and learning their own strength and self-respect after 50 years of despair and degradation... [The young] are able to by-pass half a century of passivity brought on by the betrayals of the national struggle in 1921-2.
“The moderate agitation of the older people mobilises the youngsters in a much more militant fashion. This militancy will in turn have its effect on their elders, and Derry may pass through a similar process to that in Dublin in the years 1910-20...
“The young workers were leaderless in precisely the same way as were the black youngsters who raised hell in Detroit in 1967. As in Detroit, so in Derry [there had been looting of shops by Catholic youngsters], the ‘looting’ was aimed at a class which held the kids’ families in thrall through hire purchase debts and credit”.
The article was unsigned, but it reads like John Palmer, or John Palmer and Michael Farrell (who was in London for the NICRA Trafalgar Square meeting), and maybe Gery Lawless.
By this time no one had a right to think that the events described could do anything but sharpen the communal polarisation. Yet the author(s) made no attempt to assess the overall political situation, and where events were heading.
“If the courage and determination of the young workers is to be transformed into a serious challenge”, the article said, “it must develop a sense of discipline and socialist objectives”.
How, without a revolutionary socialist organisation? One that actually existed organisationally: PD scarcely did exist as an organisation, and its politics were still vague, essentially militant liberalism.
“A campaign must be mounted to build a bridge to young Protestant workers. This unity, more than anything, spells disaster for the Tory police state”.
The Time Factor
Indeed it would, if it existed. But that “this unity” was still a million political miles away. The work of creating it was a programme for a whole period — and not a short one either. Astonishingly absent from the article was any notion of political time, and of the real tempo and concatenations of events in Northern Ireland. The author, or authors, wrote as if the current situation could continue indefinitely. Its working assumption was that there was plenty of time. By that stage that was a preposterous idea.
“There is a strong possibility that the [Belfast] Stormont government will take the opportunity to put the boot in on the civil rights movement. The British troops in the Six Counties may be used to release the RUC and B-Specials to crush the youth of Derry.
“British socialists must extend the campaign of solidarity with the struggle for civil rights in the terrorist state maintained by British imperialism”.
Though the article, in fact, painted a picture of incipient civil war, its only conclusion, printed in bold type, was: “Demand that British troops be withdrawn now”.
Local branches of the ICRSC were called upon to come to a demonstration outside the “Ulster Office” in London.
A picture of the crowd outside the Ulster Office in London appeared on page one of the 24 July Socialist Worker. A banner read: “Workers’ Unity Must Be Built At All Costs”. The SW headline: "‘Disband Ulster Gestapo’, demand Irish civil rights marchers”. The Starry Plough flag of Connolly's Irish Citizen Army was carried at its head, as were posters reading: “Unionist thugs butcher innocent people in Northern Ireland”, and “Civil Rights Now”.
Gery Lawless, speaking for the ICRSC, told the marchers (according to SW):
“We want civil rights not civil war, but if the government of Northern Ireland blocks the road to full civil rights now, if they face us with the threat of civil war, then I say to them that the fighting youth of Derry gave them their answer last week”.
John Palmer, for IS, “angrily denounced those who condemn ‘the violence’ of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. It was the economic violence of unemployment, slum housing, and police thuggery that were to blame for the situation in the Six Counties police state, he said. He called for the Irish workers to realise Connolly and Larkin’s dream of a united Irish workers’ republic”.
The perennial and perennially self-confusing demagogic sleight of mind! Unemployment is a sort of violence: ergo, the reality and looming threat of violent “violence” (so to speak) is disposed of as a political problem demanding answers!
To the EC, on July 21 Palmer reported that the Trafalgar Square rally had been “a moderate success”, with between 800 — 1,000 people there.
If that, given the prominence of some of the speakers and the number of organisations backing the rally, — NICRA, The C P’s Connolly Association, ICRSC, Labour Party MPs, IS… — was a “moderate success” one wonders what failure would look like. Measured against the grand plans of the EC, it was a moderate, or not so moderate, failure…
The ICRSC now made plans to stand in an upcoming by-election in Islington North. But the eruption in N l changed everything. The ICRSC, though it won’t be buried for a while yet, is effectively dead.
"Civil Rights — A "Transitional Demand"?
“Civil rights" was now becoming a code, a pseudonymn, awould-be “transitional demand”, for socialist politics.
The truth was that the original civil rights programme, not the tacked-on demands for jobs and so on, had indeed proved to be “transitional”, but not to socialist politics. Transitional demands are not, as is often said, demands that can’t be met (which was the way that the demands for jobs and housing in Northern Ireland were said to be “transitional”). They are, initially sometimes quite limited, linked demands which mobilise workers and whose possibilities expand and escalate to the degree that such mobilisation occurs.
The Catholic mobilisation evoked by the basic civil rights demands opened up broader and deep political vistas: civil rights led to the idea of self-determination, to challenging the existence of the Six Counties entity. The “impossibilist” demands for jobs and so on that implied socialist revolution had no such mobilising power — and no power at all, in 1969, to mobilise Protestant workers and unite them with Catholic workers.
THE first issue of Socialist Worker after a two week summer break appeared on 14 August. Northern Ireland was now, since August 12, when fighting had erupted around the Apprentice Boys march in Derry, in the early stage of sectarian civil war. “Sean Reed” reappeared in SW for the first time in a while (it would also be his last appearance), under the headline, “Derry fights police state”.
SW readers were told: “The fighting started as 15,000 of the Orange bullyboys of Derry marched, beating their drums in their annual master-race reminder to the majority of Derry’s citizens of their historic humiliation...”
In a paper dated 14 August, the night on which Protestant West Belfast erupted in a ferocious assault on the Catholic Falls Road, Reed, clung stubbornly to the fantasy that it was a matter of “the citizens” against a mere Orange-Unionist “state machine”.
“Although some Paisleyites joined the cops in their attack, this was a straightforward fight between the heroic citizens of Bogside and the armed forces of the state...
“It is no exaggeration to say that Derry may be at the brink of pogrom or civil war... If the police attacks continue, the alternative is no longer between civil war and peace. It is between a pogrom and a civil war. The whole working class of Ireland must not, at any cost, allow a pogrom”.
The nonsensical SW line that the British government was not able to deliver “civil rights” reforms was repeated in a paper appearing on the day that the British troops took control of Derry City, and on the eve of their taking control of Belfast.
“To expect the Wilson government to support the people of Derry in their demands for civil rights is to sow illusions... British imperialism can no more aid the struggle of the Irish people than petrol can quench fire” (emphasis added).
What did this SW article suggest British socialists should do? “The British and international labour movement, in alliance with the majority of Irish people everywhere, must rally to bring real aid to the beleaguered people”. Meaning? In London, urged SW, support the ICRSC rally at Shepherds Bush Green, the following Sunday…
And even now, the thoughtless talk of “the people” continued. “Collect money and other material aid to help the struggling people of Ulster”.
Socialist Worker Comes to the End Of a Chapter
That article was the end of a whole phase for Socialist Worker and IS. The next Socialist Worker would initiate a radical change of direction, in response to the events in Northern Ireland.
The nonsensical “ultra-left” analysis that Britain and the Orange hardliners were politically identical would be first qualified and then abandoned. The fact that Britain wanted reforms, and would no longer let the Unionists do what they liked in the U K's “dirty back yard”, was now taken on board — and it would be exaggerated wildly, and in terms of working-class politics, as stupidly as the opposite had been proclaimed before.
IS’s leaders would be gripped by a political hysteria — it would dominate the upcoming September 1969 IS conference — which was essentially a hysterical recoil from their own civil-war-mongering, vicarious Green-nationalist politics of the previous months.
Next article in this series: Part 7: The end of the old order in Northern Ireland