The Birmingham pub bombings, on 21 November 1974, killed 21 people and injured 182 others through bombs in Birmingham city centre.
The reaction to the killings included protest strikes; some workers seen to be sympathetic to Irish Republicanism being driven out of their jobs; and drastic curbs on civil liberties through a Prevention of Terrorism Act rushed through Parliament (with no votes against — supposedly as a temporary measure, but renewed again and again over decades until its provisions were folded into more recent “anti-terrorist” legislation).
Six people were quickly arrested and convicted for the bombings, but those “Birmingham Six” were exonerated (in 1991) after a long campaign. It has been said, for example by the former Labour MP Chris Mullin, who campaigned to free the “Birmingham Six”, and without contradiction, that the actual bombers were of the Provisional IRA. The bombing was not ordered by the central IRA leadership, and David O’Connell, a chief IRA leader, made a statement on 8 December condemning the bombing.
Workers’ Fight, forerunner of Solidarity, condemned the bombing immediately. The debate reproduced below was sparked by a letter to Workers’ Fight from Lawrie White, then a leading member of the International Marxist Group, denouncing our condemnation.
It is evidence that Workers’ Liberty, and its predecessors, Socialist Organiser and Workers’ Fight, did concern itself nearly half a century ago with questions of revolutionary morality.
To clarify: when we wrote of supporting the Republicans, we meant support against the British Army, not political identification with the Provisionals or endorsement of them.
Letter: Our first duty
The front page article in Workers’ Fight 78 on the Birmingham bombings makes the correct point that the critic isms Trotskyists make of the IRA should be made clearly in the context of support for the struggle against British imperialism.
However, this is precisely what the very same article fails to do.
It begins by asserting that “Revolutionary socialists ... have a duty to denounce (!) and condemn this indefensible and senseless slaughter”. And indeed the whole article was littered with such emotive terms: the “carnage” was “callous”, impossible to “explain or justify”, “simply indefensible on any grounds — military, political or moral” etc., etc.
What has happened, comrades! Is it the first time in history that civilians have been killed in a war? Did Workers’ Fight “denounce and condemn” the Vietnamese NLF’s attacks on civilian targets in puppet-controlled areas as “indefensible and senseless”? Did Workers’ Fight ever spend so much space waxing horror struck over UVF pub-bombings in the Six Counties, or over the British provocateurs bombing in Dublin, for that matter?
Of course not! Because the first duty of revolutionaries is to distinguish between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. The first duty of revolutionaries is to denounce and condemn the indefensible hypocrisy of the imperialist state and all its allies in the press and TV. (The deliberate indiscriminate fire-bombing of the entire city of Dresden in the last war is worthy of more than a mere aside, comrades).
But on the Birmingham bombings, the hypocrisy you choose to condemn is that of “the workers in the Midlands”. Physician heal thyself. How can you demand that the masses see through the hypocrisy of the anti-IRA hysteria whipped up by the press when you yourselves make no attempt what soever to unmask it, but in fact merely reinforce it by repeating the same expressions of horror?
But worse. You also join in the universal attribution of responsibility for the bombings to Irish republicans. You say they were “probably the work of Irish republicans”.
Where is the evidence for this statement? Admittedly at the time of going to press, you may not have heard the news of the Provos’ denial of responsibility. But even without that what excuse can there be for your statement? You say yourselves that you cannot see any sense in the bombings. They seem “politically very stupid”. If the work of the IRA. they would “signal an entirely new departure”. Well then, where is the logic in attributing them to the IRA? Isn’t it obvious that there might be something wrong with the premiss if the conclusion doesn’t make sense? Especially when you know very well, even if the workers in the Midlands don’t, that the bombings are copy-book examples not of what the IRA is accustomed to doing, but of what the extreme unionist forces like the UVF regularly do in the north of Ireland. (And we should note that if the bombings were a right wing provocation, they were by no means “politically very stupid”.)
The real lesson of the Birmingham bombings is that the British bourgeoisie have demonstrated that if someone lets off a couple of bombs, they can rapidly disorientate the workers movement and open it up to extreme right wing agitation through a press campaign blaming the IRA. And under cover of the hysteria thus whipped up, they can introduce draconian legislation planned weeks in advance.
This means that our first duty is not to “firmly (!) dissociate (ourselves) from any bombing campaign aimed at the civilian population”, but to firmly dissociate ourselves first and foremost from the anti-IRA campaign of the British ruling class And you don’t do that simply by re-stating your general position on the IRA It is the concrete situation you have to confront. It is not possible to disarm the bourgeoisie of its ideological weapons if we do not first train revolutionary cadre to recognise and to resist them.
It is this essential task that you editorial failed to carry out.
Communist greetings, Lawrie White.
Reply: facing the issues squarely
How Lawrie White concludes that we fail to place criticism of the IRA within the context of the struggle against imperialism is rather a mystery.
We have been advised by the NCCL [National Council for Civil Liberties, now called Liberty] that the editorial he criticises would be illegal now within the terms of the Jenkins police state law! The only logic to his outpouring is that condemnation of the Birmingham bombings and acceptance of the “probable responsibility of “Irish republicans” outweighed the four fifths of the article that made the basic case for the republican cause! (But we can’t please him there either, since he upbraids us for attacking the double standards of British workers in the Midlands who struck work over the bombings, but never bother about the terror by the British army in Ireland…)
When he says that we never spent as much space expressing horror at the UVF-UDA assassinations and the British army terror, it means he’s not been reading the paper or that he is indulging in shoddy and dishonest polemics.
He says that the first duty is to denounce the imperialists for their hypocrisy: we think there are other priorities, like explaining as often as necessary, what the republicans fight for, but whatever the first duty of revolutionaries in Britain may be, it is clear that Lawrie White sees denouncing hypocrisy as the only duty here and now.
At one and the same time he elevates denial of possible Republican responsibility into a principle it is treason to depart from in the “concrete situation”, and goes on to talk about the “first duty” being to ‘distinguish between the violence of the oppressors and the violence of the oppressed”. So does White think the bombings were “probably” or even “possibly” the work of “the oppressed”... some republicans, perhaps? Even if he has so far kept the dreadfully heretical thought locked in his subconscious, clearly he does think so; for at least it has escaped into his letter, if obliquely.
If there be any sense in the letter and it is other than a piece of IMG sniping or sniping by a member of the IMG not very happy with the way the line of that organisation has wobbled on the issue of solidarity with the Republicans in the last year), it can only be the belief that “the IRA” are never to be criticised, at least in ‘military matters, and if they do, or may have done, something that is indefensible, then the best policy for British revolutionaries who are in general solidarity with them is to copy the three wise monkeys and hear, see, and say nothing.
White is correct to say that revolutionaries in Britain must fight the bourgeois ideological domination of the working class specifically, the chauvinism on the Irish question. But for him, the essence of “disarming the bourgeoisie’ of its ideological weapons against the working class comes down to... denial that Irish republicans might indeed have been responsible for the Birmingham bombings. That is a very limited, not to say peculiar and bizarre, conception of the nature and depth of the chauvinist disease in the British working class, of the present situation, and of the tasks of revolutionaries.
How do we disarm the bourgeoisie of its ideological weapons in this case? It is certainly not done by a Workers Press-type panic stricken scream of “No! — it couldn’t have been republicans, it wasn’t the IRA”. Because it might well have been republicans. It might have been elements of the republican population from northern Ireland who, in their justified bitterness and outrage at the British terror, reacted in such a politically senseless, but quite understandable, way.
Our article referred to “Irish republicans”, not any specific section of the IRA, and we would include in that term the smallest sub-grouping that takes up the fight in northern Ireland against British imperialism. The Provisionals are the main force fighting, but they have no exclusive licence to fight British imperialism (or to claim the solidarity of revolutionaries in Britain), nor are they the sole custodians of the right of the Irish people to fight British imperialism.
Isn’t it contradictory. Lawrie White asks, to say the bombings were probably the work of republicans, if they were senseless from a republican point of view? Unfortunately not. White’s talk of contradictions is abstract, purely formal logic. We are faced with the logic of the various forms of struggle employed by an oppressed people. Those forms of struggle are not, and can never be neatly cut to shape in advance. It is entirely consistent with the desperate plight of the Catholics in northern Ireland that such an outbreak could occur, the work of isolated active service units, splinter groups, or previously inactive republican sympathisers.
David O’Connell no doubt “dissociates” from the anti-IRA campaign of the British press. And he knows that any action such as the Birmingham bombings, by any section of the Catholic republican population, will be laid at the door of “the IRA”. that is, the Provisionals. Yet he condemned the bombings, disclosed that he didn’t know whether or not some sections even of the Provisional IRA were responsible, said that if it were found that they were, there would be a court of inquiry and possibly court martial — nor did he wriggle by over-stressing the no-doubt real possibility that it was an anti-republican provocation (see the last issue of Workers’ Fight for O’Connell’s interview).
Unlike the weekly paper of White’s own organisation, Red Weekly, the revolutionary nationalist leader had the guts and the seriousness to face the real possibility or probability that it was the work of republicans. He neither condoned it nor did he change sides because of it! He condemns it, which is what we did and do. And we don’t change sides either.
It is a short, though logical, step, from resting one’s supposed assault on British chauvinism and anti-IRA hysteria exclusively on saying it wasn’t the IRA to capitulation to that chauvinism. For it is implied in this weighty. Marxist, principled, non-hypocritical, firm, unflinching, unbending, rr...revolutionary stance, that if it were really republicans then the general reaction to the bombings, at least, and maybe the wholesale condemnation of everything the IRA stands for, and the war that it is fighting as well, are quite justified, That is neither to disarm the bourgeoisie, nor to arm the working class ideologically. It is not even to face the issues squarely, with Marxist honesty — it is to hide in a corner. And that is what the IMG did. And from this lofty moral platform, Lawrie White delivers us a lecture on revolutionary seriousness and principles, If the essence of “disarming” the bourgeoisie is to deny IRA responsibility rather than to reassert the justice of the Republican cause even if the Provisionals were entirely responsible for the bombs — what happens to your credibility with serious workers who read your paper and place confidence in it, if it transpires — say as a result of the Provisional court of inquiry- that Republicans were responsible? What about the crucial problem of educating the vanguard of the British working class to distinguish between the fundamental issues in this war and the “politics of the last atrocity” which, unfortunately, normally determine the ebbs and flows of working-class opinion on it?
There is only one way to disarm the bourgeoisie and placate the anger — the justified anger — of the British working class, and that is to confront the reality as you see it. Don’t try to be “clever” and slippery. Take sides always according to the fundamental issues in the war-defend what can be defended, and if something occurs which you find indefensible denounce it. Workers’ Fight wanted to face the issues squarely as we assessed them, and as they would appear to our readers.
We reiterated our pro-republican stand, irrespective of Birmingham.
Those, like the IMG, who nervously jumped for cover, placed in question what their whole attitude would be if it were shown to be a republican action. Far from arming their readers, they left them floundering with arguments that working-class militants not trained in double think would dismiss as contemptible evasions and which measured against the slaughter of 21 people and the maiming of over 180 were quite obscene.
Presumably Lawrie White wants to attack press hypocrisy to counter its influence, to talk, in the voice of revolutionary socialism, reasonably and honestly. The press deals wholesale in lies and distortions about Ireland, purveys anti-Irish racist double standards. They suppress and lie about the real facts of the Northern Ireland situation. Yes, but in this case, when the press raged — hypocritically — it happened that they merely articulated the feelings of the entire working class. We agreed and agree with those feelings and we said why. If one uses similar words and phrases, that simply means that the stock of language is limited. If White doesn’t think the events in Birmingham cause for emotion and emotional terms, the mildest comment one can make is that he should examine the state of his emotions, not to speak of his imagination.
To let oneself be swayed by feelings of horror over civilian casualties like the woman and two children killed in the M62 explosion is to lose all political balance.
Not to feel horror at senseless slaughter unconnected with any military objective is either to be personally unbalanced or to be thrown off balance in over-reaction to the hysteria.
Not to express those feelings, while maintaining the solidarity position, is to lose the possibility of even talking to ordinary British workers.
To present at length a full socialist view of the war in Ireland and to place responsibility with the British ruling class — that was to attack press hypocrisy. Workers’ Fight did exactly that. White grossly overestimates the influence of the press, however. There is no straight cause-and-effect relationship between mass chauvinism on Ireland and press coverage. Certainly the press buttresses chauvinism and makes the fight against it more difficult. But bourgeois ideological domination is much less shallow than simply being the effect of press bias, and certainly not simply related to this or that lie in the press at any given moment Far more deep-rooted, chauvinism combines decades of imperialist conditioning with the most primitive “defend your home and local pub” gut responses — understandable responses.
To concentrate on condemning Government and press hypocrisy would in this case have been a mechanism for evading the reality of working-class chauvinism, in the worst IS or WRP style. We tried to hit at the substance, not the shadow. The immediate ephemeral expression in the press at that point in time was the mere shadow of the all-pervasive double standards within the working class and the labour movement. We expect hypocrisy from the press, what we attempted was to hold a mirror up to our own class.
Events like Birmingham are, as we explained, a result of British partition, interference, and its present terror campaign in Ireland. Fundamental responsibility rests with the British state, as we said and repeat. The events in Birmingham must be seen within this context. But they are events in their own right. As such they demand a response.
Simply to duck the issue, as Red Weekly did, with a pettifogging and evasive article by Clarissa Howard [Tariq Ali], or to take refuge behind general declarations about the general right of the Irish people to fight for independence, is petty bourgeois indecision and gutlessness In practical politics, this leads to mimicking and toadying the republicans — something very different from principled solidarity.
With the Birmingham bombings, sycophancy towards the republicans and fear to take an independent judgment combined with the increasing tendency in Red Weekly to avoid sharp clashes with backward feelings in the working class, and produced a woolly and evasive response, which said nothing, did not educate, did not clarify.
It is possible, though by no means easy, rationally to explain the justice of the fight for Irish independence and all the things that flow from that, including attacks on military targets in Britain — even where some innocent victims suffer. Workers’ Fight has done that consistently and more outspokenly than any paper on the British left. We will continue to do it in the future.
A recent incident will illustrate this. A WF militant was sacked in Birmingham during the wave of anti IRA hysteria. Ironically, his first serious stand on Irish politics had been when he attempted to hit someone 18 months ago who sold him a copy of WF containing a pro-IRA article. In patient discussion he learned the basic justice of the republican cause — because it is a just cause, one that can be rationally explained and argued.
But how do you explain, on any level, the Birmingham bombings? White would have us repeat moron-like, banalities about “civilians getting killed in a war”. (Such an attitude, incidentally, parts company from the communist attitude to the habitual slaughter of non-combatant civilians in modern warfare, expressed by Leon Trotsky when he talked about the “struggle against fascist atrocities, and imperialist atrocities in general, especially the fight against the bombing of peaceful cities”, and went on to describe such things as “criminal acts”. That was in January 1939. It is a measure of the brutalisation that has coarsened even revolutionary socialists that we should have to recall such elementary attitudes.)
Are we being “moralistic”? But what is “moralism”? It is setting up abstract, timeless principles, and putting them above the needs of the class struggle. Since when has opposition to the useless slaughter of innocent working class civilians been a matter of abstract principles, and how is it counterposed to the class struggle? We are not pacifists, nor do we subscribe to the Ten Commandments. But there is a socialist morality. We recognise that the class struggle and national liberation struggle is a merciless battle in which we will kill and be killed. But we do not on that account casually shrug off slaughter which serves no political or military purpose. It is for that reason that the bombings in Birmingham must be morally condemned — according to the morality of communists who do recognise that the reality of class society imposes violence upon us.
The charge of moralism implies that one shares the caricature view that Marxists are a-moral.
For English revolutionaries to fear to bend under the pressure against the IRA is healthy and politically honourable. But it is essentially infantile and unthinking if it leads to the moral nihilism of an attitude to bombing civilians which is derived from the British RAF’s “Bomber Harris” and other professional imperialist butchers. In their zeal to refuse to condemn such bombing, (which they can hardly really believe could not be the work of certain republicans or pro-republicans) such people slander the organised republican movement, which has a better and a more honourable record precisely because it is motivated by values different from those of the imperialist butchers who casually wipe out whole cities “in order to save them”.
The attitude that would say one doesn’t condemn, one simply says Birmingham was “a mistake”, is another contemptible evasion. We did refer to the possibility that the bombing might have been the result of a ghastly series of errors, if the Republicans were responsible. Nevertheless, if what happened in Birmingham was the result of a conscious decision, then it was not a mistake but a crime against the British and Irish working class. And it was necessary to say so.
Revolutionary cadres are not just schoolboys playing rugby, trained to resist the pressure of the other side come what may. If revolutionaries are not trained to look at reality squarely and think independently, then they will prove useless. The Red Weekly method of training cadres appears to be one of ducking the issue while making a fine pretence of principled politics and world-defying intransigence.
As opposed to this, the proletarian revolutionary organisation thinks maintains its political independence, and either defends or rejects action by revolutionary nationalists which whom it is in solidarity We denounced the Birmingham atrocity. Weighing what we denounced against the fundamental issues in the war, we then went on to reiterate our continued support for the republican side, in the same article which White attacks.
We affirm the right of the IRA to fight the British ruling class and their army, in Ireland or in Britain. And we affirm our right to condemn elements within or on the fringe of that movement if they are, or appear to be, in favour of indiscriminate and senseless slaughter of innocent British workers.
We judged the situation and took our position irrespective of the attitude of the Republican movement. As it happens, we afterwards learned that Provisional leader David O’Connell expressed a similar attitude.
The guerilla leader O’Connell knows that armed actions either have a purpose or they are senseless; either they are part of a strategy, or they are random and indefensible. He says that the Birmingham bombings are senseless and indefensible. differentiating between legitimate acts in a war of liberation and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. (The vicarious, romantic sympathiser is of course free from such considerations, feels no responsibility and instead of trying to talk intelligently to the potential allies of the republicans among the British working class, he takes refuge in ‘tough guy’ quips like White’s “is this the first time civilians have been killed?”) We welcomed O’Connell’s statement. But we would anyway have maintained our position. We remain consistent.
And White and the IMG? If the Provisional IRA investigation which O’Connell announces leads to a trial by the Republicans (we deny the right of the British state to try such people, who should be treated as prisoners of war), will White remain consistent and consider the defendants in such a trial as victims of British hysteria reflected within the IRA itself? (Thus intimating that even the Provos are not “hard”, ruthless, or “callous” enough for their vicarious British sympathisers…)
Or will they ditch their positions of today, and come to agree with O’Connell — and Workers’ Fight?
• Workers’ Fight 81, 4 January 1975 (by Sean Matgamna)