By Rachel Lever*
In August 1969 the major group on the far left in Britain, panicked by the pogroms in Belfast and Derry, were so relieved to see the British troops go into action that for nearly a whole year they dropped the slogan “British Troops Out.”
For months before August, when the British troops had no role in Northern Ireland affairs, they had made Troops Out one of their main slogans. It was a front page headline in Socialist Worker in April 1969. In August, when the troops moved centre stage, it was eloquently dropped!
On 17 August 1969, a hastily convened special meeting of members of the two leading committees of the International Socialists voted by 9 to 3 to drop the Troops Out slogan “as a headline”, while the text of articles and editorials would make clear that IS wasn’t really siding with the British Army.
But the IS leaders were facing both ways. The decision to approve what the troops were doing had to be defended against the IS leadership’s critics from the left, notably the Workers’ Fight faction within its ranks.
Already in the very first editorial, which was supposed to put to rights the absence of Troops Out “in the headline” by warning about the army’s “long term role”, Socialist Worker readers were told that though the troops were “not angels” they will not behave with the same viciousness as the RUC and B-Specials “because they do not have the same ingrained hatreds.” (A resolution at the Executive Committee to insert a statement that the troops’ presence was “in the long term interests of British imperialism” had in fact been voted down by Tony Cliff, John Palmer and Paul Foot.)
The warning seemed to consist of the mildly critical thought that “It should not be thought that the British troops can begin to solve the problems (of the Catholic workers). The role of the British troops is not to bring any real [!] solution to the problems of the people of Northern Ireland…”
Within a couple of weeks, the main fire was directed at the leadership’s critics. (Meanwhile, a Troops Out emergency motion at IS’s conference was defeated after the leaders had pulled out a good many demagogic stops to create an atmosphere of hysteria in which those who argued for Troops Out were accused of being “fascists” who “wanted a bloodbath”.)
There were constant attacks in Socialist Worker on “those who call for the immediate withdrawal of British troops”, accompanied by warnings about the horrors of life in Catholic Belfast without British troops. “When the Catholics are armed they can tell the troops to go”, a front page caption in SW generously conceded. But the idea of these armed Catholics using their bullets to tell the troops to go was just unthinkable: “…They would merely add their bullets to those of the Paisleyites and provoke an immediate clash in a situation which would lead to massacre.”
And “when the Catholics are armed” they would tell the troops to go because, the assumption went, they wouldn’t need them any more — not because they were and would be the enemy.
The paper had at first presented the issue as a purely internal Northern Ireland one, as if the British ruling class had no interest in the matter. The troops were passive and neutral: “Behind the lines of British troops the repressive apparatus of Stormont remains” — as if the troops were not themselves repressive.
Continuing this line of thought: “The Special Powers Act, which permits imprisonment without trial, has not been revoked” — presumably, if the troops were really doing a proper job, they might have gone on to revoke the Act. “And when the troops leave…” it will all still be there. It didn’t occur to them that the troops might not leave but stay on and themselves imprison people without trial.
The IS leaders concocted an elaborate and convoluted theory of lesser and greater contradictions to justify their position.
The greatest “contradiction” was between the troops and the Paisleyites, who were thwarting British designs for a bourgeois united Ireland. Meanwhile the ‘contradiction’ between the troops and the Catholics’ barricades, and the Catholic workers’ arming and self defence, would only become acute “at some future turn.” A centre page article by Stephen Marks presented the case for British troops to stay under the headline: “Fine slogans and grim reality — the contradictory role of British troops gives Catholic workers time to arm against further Orange attacks.”
The benefits of the British army in Belfast and Derry were they were “freezing” the conflict, “buying time” and providing “a breathing space” in which Catholics could prepare to fight the Orange mobs. They could also, apparently, “re-arm politically” in the course of opposing the moderates’ calls for reliance on the army — though no thanks to Socialist Worker, which stood four-square with the moderates with its apologetics for the British Army.
The ‘contradiction’ between the Army and the Catholics’ barricades and guns was in fact acute from the first day. The army’s aim was to prevent such self-defence — by substituting for it, and by repressing it.
In the very week when the troops were taking down the barricades this same article talked of a “future turn in the situation when the demolition of the barricades may [!] be needed in the interests of British capital itself and not merely of its local retainers.”
IS made a big thing of the barricades. Defence of the barricades had been its militant call, substituted for Troops Out as soon as the troops were on the streets. The special issue of SW on Ireland following the change of line had declared in banner headlines: “The barricades must stay until: • B-Specials disbanded • RUC disarmed • Special Powers Act abolished • Political prisoners released.” And on 11 September the main headline was “Defend the Barricades — no peace until Stormont goes.”
But the week the barricades were taken down in Belfast found SW with its main centre page policy article defending SW’s failure to call for the troops to go (and in so doing defending the troops themselves); and the week the barricades were brought down in Derry, as a prelude to the liquidation of ‘Free Derry’, found SW utterly silent on the question.
To continue the call for the defence of the barricades would have meant to call the Catholics into conflict with the troops — which really would have exposed ‘the main contradiction’ in IS’s line.
When IS finally re-adopted Troops Out in May or June of 1970 on a National Committee resolution from Sean Matgamna of Workers’ Fight (they had fought tooth and nail to avoid defeat on the question at the Easter conference two months earlier) the IS leaders said they had been right all along, and of course they were right now to change. One took one’s position “in response to changes in the immediate role of the troops.” It all depended on just what the Army was doing at any particular time, though in fact the decisive change in the relationship of the Catholics to the British soldiers didn’t come until later, when the switch from a Labour to a Tory government (June) led to a clumsy ‘get tough’ attitude to the Catholics, and then to the curfew on the Lower Falls in July 1970.
The IS leaders didn’t for long hold to that line that they had been right all along. For many years they have denied they ever argued for the troops to stay.
In true Stalinist fashion they go through the old papers, picking out a quote here and there out of context to support their claim that “week after week after week” they opposed the troops. But there are two simple words that they can never quote after the August of that critical year, and they are: troops out.
* Rachel Lever was a member of International Socialists from 1968 to 1971.
Editor's note [Workers' Liberty 21]
A word about why we publish this article, which first appeared in Workers' Action in 1979.
Ireland is one of the most fraught areas of dispute on the British left. The IS/SWP account of history of Ireland contains much lies and big evasion - see for example Ian Birchall's official history. For - rightly or wrongly - the group did, with a bit of camouflage here and there, support British troops in Northern Ireland and make propaganda directly justifying their immediate role there. (See Socialist Worker for September and October 1969).
I was one of the members of IS who opposed and fought what seemed to be a panic scuttling away from the politics of consistent anti-imperialism.
Eventually, in May or June 1970, after fighting it through two conferences (September 1969 and Easter 1970) we won the organisation to our position.
Today, and for many years, the tendency that publishes Workers' Liberty and Socialist Organiser approaches the issue in Ireland as not fundamentally a matter of British imperialism but of intra-Irish divide made worse by Britain. Troops out should be advocated as part of a general political settlement, and without that can only lead to sectarian civil war and repartition.
A proper discussion of what was right and what wrong in 1969, and nuances of the subjexct, would require a big article. (There is an account of our thinking in the pamphlet, Ireland: The Socialist Answer).
Nevertheless, the fact about the IS/SWP record on the question are worth establishing if only to get SWPers to think about the issue.
That is why we publish this piece, written on the tenth deployment of British troops, by someone who took part in those debates - Rachel Lever, who, though not a member of the National Committee, took part in the October 1969 IS National Committee discussion on the issue. She did not - as far as I know - ever rethink the issue.