Below is Chapter 9 of Common History, Common Struggle entitled “August 1969: The North Erupts”. On the fiftieth anniversary of the events of 1969 it is pertinent that Socialists, Trade Unionists and activists learn the lessons of that period. Common History, Common Struggle is available for purchase from socialistpartyni.org
The storm erupted in August 1969. One event lead to an explosion of violence in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere and within days British troops were on the streets. They were to remain there for more than a quarter of a century.
The event was the annual parade by the Apprentice Boys in Derry. There was an electrifying tension in Derry in the days leading up to parade on 12th August. The Citizens’ Defence Association, commonly known as the Defence Committee, made preparations to defend the Bogside area in case of attacks by Paisleyites, the RUC and the B-Specials. On the eve of the Apprentice Boys’ march, barricades were put up in some streets.
At first, the 15,000 strong Apprentice Boys’ parade passed off peacefully. They marched along the city walls overlooking the Bogside. The loyalist bands accompanying the Apprentice Boys played sectarian tunes and some marchers sought to insult local residents by throwing pennies down towards the terraces of the Bogside below. Within the Bogside, Defence Committee stewards, Labour Party members and civil rights leaders managed to restrain the angry local youth for a time. An uneasy calm prevailed and for a while it seemed possible that violence on the scale which had been feared might be avoided. But temperatures had risen too high for an event such as this to pass off peacefully.
At a certain point, the young Bogsiders could be held back no longer and some began to throw stones at the marchers. This was the cue for the RUC to launch an attack on the Catholic crowds who had gathered at the entrance to the Bogside. Immediately everything changed. The event which the Bogsiders had dreaded, an RUC attack backed up by loyalists from the march and leading to a pogrom, seemed to have begun. The response of the people of the area was almost instantaneous – most of the population moved as if as one to repel the RUC and defend their homes and their lives.
While the Defence Committee had made certain preparations, what actually took place went far beyond these. It was a spontaneous mass uprising by working class people of the Bogside and of Creggan who took control of the whole area. Barricades were erected cutting off every main access point. Behind the barricades, the people organised every aspect of their lives for themselves. Field hospitals were set up, manned by doctors, and Defence Committee activists used walkie-talkies to co-ordinate their forces in the battles with the attacking RUC. Every man, woman and child who could help became involved to some degree in the defence of the area, whether filling bottles with petrol or standing in the front ranks hurling these petrol bombs at the lines of advancing RUC men.
Fierce fighting took place at the main entrances to the Bogside, particularly in William Street and in Rossville Street, which led towards the Rossville Flats. On one side were the police with batons, shields, full riot gear and also with CS gas, the use of which was quickly sanctioned by the British Labour government through Home Secretary James Callaghan. Behind the police stood gangs of loyalists, many of them Apprentice Boys who had come to Derry for the march and who now savoured the prospect of an all-out assault on the Bogside.
On the other side were the Catholic youth, many with wet handkerchiefs tied round their faces in a desperate attempt to ward off the noxious effects of the CS gas which soon hung in the air. Youths on top of the Rossville Flats rained a fusillade of petrol bombs on the RUC every time they attempted to charge into the area.
In the course of these events, the original Defence Committee, set up as a somewhat ad-hoc body, was filled out. Its meetings were swelled to forty and then fifty people, with representatives from new organisations and, most importantly, directly from the people of the area. It was developing into a genuine organ of workers’ rule, especially as tenants’ representatives, representatives of street committees and those leading the organisation of the defence of the area came together within it. The Defence Committee took the key decisions, not only on defence but on the day-to-day management of life behind the barricades.
As the numbers on the Defence Committee expanded, the ideas of the left, who were organised as a faction within it, grew in influence. The views put forward by the representatives of the Derry Labour Party and of the Young Socialists received a powerful echo, as opposed to the more cautious approach of the old guard republicans and civil rights ‘moderates’ who also managed to find a place within it.
Among the people of the area there was a thirst for discussion. Socialist ideas, while they gained an echo in the Defence Committee, gained an even greater echo when they were put forward among the aroused population, whether at street meetings or through publications. Derry Labour Party members produced a Barricades Bulletin, the first issue of which came out on August 14th. It carried news from the barricades, reports of the fighting, instructions on how to handle petrol bombs and also appealed for no vandalism and no joyriding in the area. It was the main bulletin produced within the ‘Free Derry’ area and reflected the grassroots influence built up by the party during the whole period of the civil rights struggle.
Revolutionary events are the severest test of those who espouse revolutionary ideas. Every indecision, every weakness is thoroughly and speedily punished. Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin were undoubtedly the best of the mass leaders thrown up during the civil rights struggle and those closest to a Marxist position. Now their flaws, above all their tendency to buckle politically at decisive moments under the pressure of temporary moods, were exposed. Neither had a complete understanding of what was necessary. Both acted as individuals, advocating class ideas but failing to draw the necessary practical conclusions, in particular the need to build an organised tendency of Marxism to put these ideas into practice within the movement, and also to steady them politically and assist them to withstand alien pressures.
Bernadette Devlin responded to the siege with particular heroism, standing in the front lines, organising and inspiring defence. Pictures of this young MP breaking stones to throw at the police offended the comfortable and well-fed MPs on the Tory and right-wing Labour benches at Westminster but earned her the justified respect of the Catholic youth of the North and of most of the rank-and-file of the British and international labour movements. But while her courage and resolve hardened, her political convictions softened. On the second day of the fighting, she and Eamonn McCann issued a joint statement headed ‘Westminster must act’, a statement which was a repudiation of the firm and independent class position McCann, in particular, had previously verbally advocated on behalf of Derry Labour. It called “for the suspension of the Northern Ireland constitution and for a constitutional conference representative of Westminster, the Unionist Government, and the Government of the Republic of Ireland and all tendencies within the civil rights movement” (Irish News, 13/08/1969).
What was to become known as “The Battle of the Bogside” continued for over three days. Again and again, the police charged towards the Rossville Flats. Again and again, they were repelled, each time being met with a fury of stones and petrol bombs. The strategic position held by the young defenders on the roof of the high flats proved decisive. No amount of CS gas fired by the RUC could dislodge them. So long as they held this position, they could disrupt every police charge with petrol bombs.
In order to relieve the tense pressure on the Bogside, the Defence Committee appealed for demonstrations to be organised in other areas to divert police resources and stretch the RUC. Over the next nights, protests were held in Belfast, Dungiven, Strabane, Toomebridge, Omagh, Lurgan, Armagh, Newry and Enniskillen. Almost all ended in some degree of violence. Rioting in Dungiven resulted in the courthouse and the Orange hall being burnt.
As the fighting continued in Derry, the RUC became increasingly exhausted. Out of a force of 3,200, 600 had already been injured since the start of the civil rights campaign. In Derry, the Bogsiders were winning the battle, driving the police back to William Street and towards the commercial centre of the city. Using their existing forces and the weapons they had used so far, the Unionist state could not suppress the Derry insurrection.
This was already clear by the second day of the fighting, when Chichester Clark chose to hold a meeting with Ian Paisley. Paisley demanded that the B-Specials be mobilised and also that a ‘people’s militia’ be recruited to restore order, a none too veiled call for the recruitment and arming of a Protestant militia so that an all-out offensive could be launched against the Catholic community. It was a plain recipe for civil war. The weak and embattled Prime Minister, rather than dismiss the idea, retorted: “It might come to that” (Maloney and Pollak, p197). Two days later, when Paisley began to recruit this mistitled ‘people’s militia’, Chichester Clark actually put his name to a newspaper advertisement encouraging people to enrol. As all-out conflict loomed, the ground shifted from under the feet of so called ‘liberal unionists’ like Clark and they moved firmly over to the side of loyalist reaction.
One day after his meeting with Paisley, and as the Derry insurrection moved into its third day, the government acceded to Paisley’s first demand and called the B-Specials into action to assist the RUC in retaking the Bogside. This undisciplined and sectarian rabble had already been used by the government during recent violence. In July, they had been deployed to keep ‘order’ in Dungiven and did so by opening fire on a group of Catholics coming out of a dance hall. They had also already been involved in secondary fighting during the three day Battle of the Bogside. While the main fighting from the outset had been with the police, there had been sectarian clashes between Bogsiders and residents from the nearby Fountain estate and the government had sent B-Specials to ‘keep the peace’ between these two areas. Instead, some Specials had thrown stones at the Catholics and ultimately some of them had joined with Protestants in burning Catholic homes.
So when, on the afternoon of Thursday 14th August, the defenders of the Bogside saw B-Specials moving into positions close to William Street, they had good reason to fear that guns would now be used to suppress their revolt. Had this Protestant militia been sent into the Bogside, no matter what orders it would have been given, a bloody pogrom would have resulted. It could very well have tipped Northern Ireland into civil war.
At this point and for this reason, the British government took the decision to send in troops. At 5.15 that Thursday afternoon, soldiers from the First Battalion of the Prince of Wales Regiment took up positions on the edge of the Bogside. The police and the Specials withdrew. To the Bogsiders, it seemed a clear cut victory. They had withstood all that the Unionist state had thrown at them and still Free Derry was intact behind the barricades. There was an enthusiastic reception for the troops from the beleaguered residents. Soldiers were greeted with smiles and cups of tea. For most residents, it was clear: the troops had relieved the siege and their presence had averted the certain bloodshed which otherwise would have taken place.
In this atmosphere, the enthusiastic welcome for the troops went beyond the Bogside and Creggan. Civil rights leaders, trade union leaders, the NILP tops and most politicians supported the decision to put the army on the streets. Some of those on the left of the civil rights movement were also infected by the mood and gave their backing. Among these were a number who, when the mood in the Catholic areas changed into one of hostility to the army, likewise bent to that prevailing opinion and ended up supporting the military campaign of the Provisional IRA, aimed at driving the troops out.
The British government did not send in the troops for altruistic reasons. The bloody history of British imperialism, not least their history in Ireland, exposes any pretence of humanitarianism. The British ruling class was acting to defend its interests.
A civil war would have engulfed property – their property – in the North. The 17 firms destroyed in the August rioting were but a small taste of what would have taken place if matters had been allowed to degenerate further. Civil war begun in the North would have engulfed the whole island, upsetting the trade relations which British capitalism had been carefully nurturing for over a decade. The blame for the bloodshed would have attached largely to Britain and there would have been a move to seize, if not burn, British assets in the South.
Moreover, fighting would have spread to the cities of Britain with large Irish communities. Internationally, there would have been effects on trade: the large Irish community in America could have used its influence to achieve, if not an official, then an unofficial embargo on British goods.
Finally, the British ruling class were fearful as to what would be the outcome of widespread civil disturbances. They looked with dread at the rapid development of socialist ideas behind the barricades in Derry and they feared that, even in a conflict which started out as a sectarian clash, a people aroused to arms might nonetheless end up taking measures against capitalism.
For all these reasons, British capitalism, while retaining its preference for withdrawal and re-unification, found itself going down the opposite road, placing its troops on the streets and for the first time assuming direct responsibility for the situation.
The state and the armed instruments of the state are not neutral forces in a capitalist society. They are class instruments which, in the last analysis, serve the interests of the ruling class, both at home and abroad. The British Army was sent to Northern Ireland to protect property and the profits of the British capitalists, not to protect the interests of either Catholic or Protestant workers. For a period, it seemed otherwise as the interests of the British ruling class (averting civil war) and the interests of the Catholic minority (to escape a pogrom) temporarily coincided.
Under these circumstances, was it correct for socialists to welcome the army so that civil war would be averted and a new opportunity gained for the class struggle to develop at a later stage? The answer is no. Socialists must always be prepared to speak the truth, to state things as they are, even when to do so means to stand against the tide of popular opinion and risk temporary isolation.
The presence of troops could solve nothing in the North. Insofar as it was one factor in postponing an immediate conflict, it would also be a factor in promoting conflict, albeit of a different character, at a future stage. Inevitably, the interests of the army and those of the Catholic working class would come into collision. The source of the discontent in the Catholic areas was not solely or even primarily the presence of the RUC and the B-Specials. Rather, it was unemployment, poor housing and the poverty which the RUC and the B-Specials were sent to maintain.
These things would continue so long as capitalism remained. And when the Catholic masses rose again to struggle, no matter around what immediate issues, they would come face to face with the new guardians and defenders of the existing social order, the British army. Displaying a little more foresight and clarity than did those socialists who called for and welcomed the entry of troops as defenders, General Sir Ian Freeland, the man in charge of the interventions, acknowledged that “the honeymoon period between the troops and local people is likely to be short-lived” (Derry Journal, 19/08/1969).
The role of socialists should have been to forewarn so that at least the advanced workers would have been prepared for the future repressive role of the army. Not to do so was to sow illusions among workers that they could rely on the forces of the state, rather than rely on their own strength, their own forces and their own independent class ideas.
It was no less a mistake to sow illusions that the United Nations would send a peacekeeping force or that such a force would act in the interests of the working class any more than would the British army.
The, in reality, (dis)United Nations, since its foundation after World War Two, had been paralysed by the conflicting interests of the various capitalist powers and the Stalinist powers within it. It prevented not a single conflict anywhere in the world. There was never the slightest possibility of UN intervention in the North at the time, though the Southern government and others had called for this. In any case, it is a complete illusion to imagine that United Nation troops somehow represent different class interests to the governments and ruling classes who provide troops for any intervention force. Even accepting, for the sake of argument, that UN troops had been dispatched to Belfast, they would have upheld the same fundamental interests as the British troops and would have ended up playing a similar role.
The true face of the UN was revealed in a debate on the Northern crisis which did take place at the instigation of the Irish government. The whole thing was stitched up behind the scenes before the debate began. The Irish were allowed to raise the matter and then the debate was adjourned. All parties were satisfied with this compromise – the Irish government who could claim to have tried, the British because nothing was decided and the other major powers because they were able to give de facto support to Britain’s action in deploying troops but without having had to say so. While all other political tendencies succumbed completely or partially to the mood of support for the army’s presence, the Militant newspaper gave a farsighted explanation and took a clear and principled stand. In its September 1969 issue, the Militant carried a headline which unequivocally demanded the withdrawal of troops. In a main article, it predicted: “The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business.”
A special Militant leaflet dated August 1969 and circulated in the North explained: “Now British troops have been sent in. Those who clamoured for this to be done should stop to think what role the army will play. It is true that the disarming of the B Specials and the control by the army of the police may bring about a temporary uneasy truce, yet it is still extremely doubtful if these measures are going to be effective. It is much more true, however, that whenever troops of Britain or any other capitalist power are used ‘to bring peace’ to a section of the world’s population, the real reason is always the same – to protect profits”.
Derry Labour Party also stood out against the mood. Its Barricade Bulletin stated: “We were pleased to see the troops. They have behaved well. For this reason some people seem to think that the troops are here to protect us. They are not, any more than the RUC and the Specials. They are here to protect the interests of the British government in this part of the United Kingdom.
“As soon as it suits the British government for them to behave differently they will do so… when we defeated the police we ended Stormont’s control of this area. We will resist anyone who tries to enforce it.
“The troops and the RUC and the Specials are now all one force intent on re-establishing the law and order of Stormont in this area. They must be resisted”.
Yet, even accepting all this, was it still not better to accept the presence of the troops as a temporary expedient rather than face the prospect of immediate civil war? Had there been no possible alternative to the army there might have been some validity in this argument. But so long as the working class exists as an independent force, so always a potential alternative to the forces of capitalism can be found. It would have been light-minded to oppose the entry of the army and leave it at that, not answering the genuine fears of workers of a bloodbath. Militant counter-posed to the presence of the army the creation of an alternative force which could defend workers lives and halt the sectarian attacks. Explaining that the working class can rely only on its own strength, it posed the need for a non-sectarian workers’ defence force to be immediately set up under the control of the trade union movement. Although this call was supported only by a tiny minority at the time, the events of the following days in Belfast were to demonstrate that it was correct. These events showed firstly that the army would be utterly powerless to prevent a civil war should the conflict move seriously in that direction. Secondly, they showed concretely how such a workers’ defence force could be built and the enormous impact it could have.
With the relative calm in Derry following the arrival of the troops, attention focused on what was taking place in Belfast. There, the sectarianism which had been simmering for months in the north and west of the city came to an explosive and ugly head. Although the NICRA Executive had decided against demonstrations in Belfast, some activists in the west of the city took matters into their own hands and went ahead anyway. On the 13th, the second day of the Derry fighting, protests were held outside the Springfield Road and Hastings Street police stations and both ended in rioting. The RUC answered by attacking the crowds, among other weapons using Shoreland armoured cars. Shots were fired by police from within the Springfield Road station. Among the Catholic crowd outside, there were only a couple of guns but shots were fired back. These scenes were witnessed by Protestants in neighbouring streets which led from this area up towards the Shankill Road. With rumours of an IRA insurrection rife, they began to put up barricades. The situation was escalating out of control when matters were made worse by an untimely intervention then made by the Southern government.
Fianna Fáil Prime Minister Jack Lynch, in a special broadcast on the situation in Derry, announced that Irish troops were being sent to the border areas and that army field hospitals were being established in Donegal. “It is clear also”, he said, “that the Irish government can no longer stand idly by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse” (Irish Times, 14/08/1969). Lynch opposed the idea of British troops being sent, instead arguing for a UN force to go in. Then he announced that only re-unification could provide a solution and that his government would be entering into negotiations with the British government on the matter.
This speech represented no dramatic turnaround on the part of the Southern capitalists or their chief political representatives. The events in Derry had had an immediate and an electrifying effect on the South. The mood of Southern workers was indeed that they would not ‘stand idly by’ and watch the people of the Bogside massacred by the B-Specials or the RUC. The government also feared that, unless they took some initiative, workers would start to take things into their own hands and themselves give concrete support to the people of Derry. Their fears were intensified when members of the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association broadcast an appeal to ‘every able bodied man’ in the South to come to their aid. In Dublin, rallies on O’Connell Street were soon to hear open appeals for arms for Belfast made by Stormont MPs, among others. The Dublin Trades Council set up a special fund for relief of families who suffered in Belfast.
The real purpose of Lynch’s speech was to cut across this self-initiative by giving the impression that his government was doing something. It was also an attempt to appease right-wing nationalists in his cabinet and in Fianna Fáil. As the Bogside erupted, a special cabinet meeting was presented with a proposal that the Irish army be sent into Derry, a proposal which neither Lynch nor any serious section of the Irish capitalist class would be prepared to brook. The idea was finally shelved by the Irish army’s realistic estimation made in response that, even if they were ordered to enter Derry, they simply did not possess the military fire power to do so. Lynch’s speech was aimed at containing the situation in the South and in his own party, not assisting the beleaguered Catholics of Derry. His government had no intention of doing anything other than ‘stand idly by’. In reality, he supported the efforts of the British government to hold the situation in check, fearing that otherwise the violence would overspill onto his territory.
The movement of troops was to disguise inaction with the appearance of action and to prevent people in the South from giving aid to the North in their own way. Militant warned at the time against the role of the Irish army, as it did against that of British troops. “No different would be the role of the Southern army. Lynch’s manoeuvring and electioneering using the Southern army was designed more for home consumption than for anything else” (September 1969). Like Marxists, the British ruling class, who also analyse things in class terms, albeit from the opposite point of view, had the full measure of Lynch’s speech. With typical British upper class arrogance, the Economist later disdainfully commented: “True he moved his little army up to the border – but only to make it harder for wild men from the South to get across and join the northern melee” (09/05/1970).
That was how it was in reality but it was not how it was seen on the Shankill Road on August 13th. The speech seemed to confirm the rumours of a general republican offensive to take over the North. With rioting and shooting only yards away on the Falls Road and with the hardliners of the Shankill Defence Association making the most of the situation, tempers and tensions rose sharply.
The following night, as an uneasy calm descended on Derry, the most serious fighting since the time of partition took place along both edges of the Shankill area. B-Specials were dispatched to the edge of Ardoyne where barricades had been put up. When police breached the barricades, they were followed into the area by crowds of Protestants mobilised by the SDA. Homes in Hooker Street were petrol bombed and gutted. One man was shot dead by police gunfire.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Shankill, serious fighting broke out in the streets which led towards the Falls Road. The trouble began when Catholics marched up from Divis Street, near the city centre, towards the Protestant and mainly Protestant streets running from the lower end of the Shankill. As fierce fighting broke out, B-Specials who had been mobilised, as in Derry, ‘to keep the peace’ turned on the Catholics. As they broke through the hastily erected barricades, crowds of Protestants followed in their wake. Whole streets of terraced homes were set on fire and completely destroyed by these rampaging mobs.
An eyewitness describes the scene: “The B Specials were lined across Conway Street with militant Protestants behind them. They were armed, very heavily armed, with Sterling sub machine guns, Thompsons and so forth. They were about twenty yards away from us, a large mob of them, and only about thirty of us holding them back with petrol bombs.”
“They opened fire after about fifteen minutes, the whole lot of them it seemed, two of us were hit immediately and one had since died. We ran down Conway Street onto the Falls and into the side streets.”
“About fifteen minutes later, that is about 9.30pm, a whippet car came down Conway Street and opened up at the people on the Falls Road. It went straight down Balaclava Street, down Ross Street and back up North Howard Street firing bursts all the time. The people were stunned with shock, I think two were injured in that attack. The people were attacking the car but they didn’t have any guns, all they had was petrol bombs, stones, sticks and things like that” (Citizen Press, 19/08/1969, Issue No. 1).
As the pogrom was getting under way, local IRA leaders attempted to mobilise their members to resist but the IRA were hopelessly unprepared. Only a handful of volunteers could be assembled. Between them they could muster a total of thirteen weapons in the Lower Falls, none in Ardoyne and two handguns in the Short Strand enclave in East Belfast. The IRA took up positions in a primary school on Divis Street from which they could establish an arc of fire into the streets opposite which led to the Shankill and where fighting was taking place. From there and also from nearby streets, they opened fire on the police and advancing Protestants. Shortly after midnight, they shot dead Herbert Roy, a Protestant who was hit in the chest by a bullet.
The IRA action offered no real defence, especially when the RUC gave their answer. Shoreland armoured cars were once again sent into the streets, this time equipped with Browning heavy machine guns, weapons which could only fire in bursts of eight shots per second and with an effective range of two and a half miles. Soon the sky above the lower Falls was lit up by fires of blazing houses and by tracer bullets from the indiscriminate machine gun fire of the RUC. Seeing bullets fired by their colleagues stream through the air, some RUC men mistakenly thought they were being fired on and intensified their own shooting.
They fired into the Divis Flats complex at no particular target. One bullet passed through the wall of a flat and killed Patrick Rooney, a nine-year-old boy, as he lay in bed. By the morning, street after street of Catholics’ houses lay in smouldering ruins. As crowds milled around assessing what had happened, debris littered the streets and the acrid smell of burning and cordite from the gunfire was everywhere. Four Catholics and one Protestant were dead while, in a separate incident in Armagh, B-Specials had shot dead James Gallagher, a Catholic civilian. Four hundred people were injured, 100 of them with gunshot wounds. Refugees were streaming out of the riot areas, some going to the South, some to Liverpool.
Again the province teetered on the brink of civil war. Unionist ‘moderation’ and ‘liberalism’ dissolved entirely as the Unionist bloc closed ranks. Chichester Clark ordered a full mobilisation of the B-Specials and Paisley began to recruit his ‘people’s militia’.
RUC chiefs advised that the police could not withstand another night of rioting and the British government decided again to intervene. Early in the afternoon of Friday 15th August, twenty four hours after their arrival in Derry, troops began to take positions in Belfast. The army was ill-briefed and ill-prepared. Not knowing where Protestant areas began and Catholic areas ended, they did not know where to station themselves. They actually began to erect barriers up the centre of the Falls Road thinking that it was a sectarian dividing line.
Rioting continued that night in West Belfast despite the presence of the bemused troops who looked on not sure what was happening. In Clonard, a Catholic area jutting away from the Falls up towards the Shankill, a monastery was attacked, an entire street of Catholic homes was burned to the ground and one teenager, Gerald McAuley – a member of the IRA youth wing, na Fianna Éireann – was shot dead. Fighting continued in Ardoyne, a further 23 Catholic homes being burned there.
By the weekend, a calm of sorts had returned. Seven people had been killed and 750 injured. 72 Catholics and 61 Protestants had received gunshot wounds. 1,500 Catholic and over 300 Protestant families had been driven from their homes which were mostly destroyed. The barricades stayed up. Areas in which upwards of 150,000 Catholics lived remained sealed off behind these makeshift barriers, a declaration by these people that they were no longer prepared to submit to the injustice and repression of Stormont. Barricades also remained in place around the Shankill and other Protestant areas.
Even in this situation, as whole streets lay smouldering, as thousands of people crowded into temporary refuges, as thousands of others packed their belongings and headed for the Dublin train or the Liverpool boat, the basis still existed for independent and united class action to provide defence. It was not the presence of the army which prevented civil war from developing after 14th August. The fact of the troops arriving onto the streets did have a psychological impact which allowed tempers to cool for a period in a number of the flashpoints areas. Beyond this, the army could do little to halt the violence. They had only physical capacity to intervene in a few areas and their total ignorance of the sectarian geography of the city made even this a clumsy intervention.
Had it been more than a psychological effect; had they been required to play a physical role, the troops would have been ineffective. Above all, had the fighting spread across the rest of Belfast and to other areas of the North, no amount of British troops would have been able to contain the situation. Under such conditions, the best that the troops could have achieved would have been to provide a military umbrella to allow the evacuation of Catholic families from Belfast and surrounding areas.
That the fighting and the intimidation did not spread beyond the already troubled sectarian interfaces along both sides of the Shankill into workplaces and into other estates was not down to intervention by the state forces, but was due to the heroic initiatives taken by thousands of working class people who acted quickly and decisively to quell trouble. While almost every petrol bomb thrown, every bullet fired around the Shankill, Falls and Ardoyne has been recorded, analysed and reanalysed, the unstinting endeavours of working class people in East Belfast, parts of North and West Belfast and many other areas to physically halt the bigots have gone unrecorded and largely ignored by history.
Across Belfast, the existing peace committees, defence committees and vigilante groups responded to the violence by going onto the streets to keep order in their areas. The Dock area of Belfast was sealed off by a joint body of Catholics and Protestants who protected all local residents. While one side of the Ardoyne burned, on the other side in Alliance Avenue, joint Catholic and Protestant vigilante groups were on the streets. In the Grosvenor Road area, close to the Lower Falls where rows of houses had been burned, joint patrols of Catholics and Protestants were also established. Families who had been driven out or who had left this area in fear were returned to their homes. Catholic families who had fled the Carlisle Flats, a working class complex which nestles close to the Shankill at the bottom of the Crumlin Road, were returned to their homes with the help of local vigilantes one week after the initial violence. East Belfast was a predominantly Protestant area apart from the small Catholic community living in the Short Strand, close to the city centre. However, there were many Catholic families living in the area, dotted through virtually every district. Some estates were quite mixed and there was a tradition of good relations between working class people throughout the area.
Viewing what was taking place across the city with horror, people in East Belfast spontaneously took action to prevent the violence spreading to their areas. Young Catholics and Protestants living in the Cregagh estate in the heart of East Belfast stood together against Protestants from other areas who came to intimidate local Catholics. A few days after the burning of homes in the Lower Falls, a committee was set up in East Belfast to co-ordinate the efforts of those trying to help keep sectarianism at bay in this area. It applauded the tireless work which had been carried out to protect families from intimidators and announced plans to (1) organise street patrols with elected leaders, (2) give “immediate and constant protection’ to any family who had been threatened, (3) encourage a ‘good neighbours’ policy, (4) maintain a strict control of alcohol and (5) maintain a voluntary family curfew in the district”.
The leaders of this committee included pacifists and churchmen. Ex-Labour MP David Bleakley, returned from Africa, was involved. Its headquarters was a church hall on East Belfast’s main thoroughfare, the Newtownards Road. However, its backbone was made up of working class people from the area, many of them shop stewards and many members of the NILP.
One week after the West Belfast pogroms, Catholic homes in East Belfast received leaflets warning “Get out or be burned out”. The peace committee replied by saying “stay put, we will protect you”. Volunteers toured the area reassuring Catholic families, while men were recruited into a vigilante corps to provide physical protection. Through this grassroots action, the sectarian antics of the bigots were held in check, the attempted intimidation was defeated and the Catholics of East Belfast stayed where they were.
During previous periods of sectarian conflict, the workplaces had become centres of intimidation and conflict, none more so than the Harland and Wolff shipyard. What happened in the shipyard in August 1969 would have a decisive effect in all other workplaces and a key impact on the overall situation. If the Catholic workers were driven out as in the 1920s, similar expulsions would take place in other factories, the news of this would spread the violence and events might possibly escalate out of control.
Following each night of violence in the city, rumour and counter-rumour spread like wildfire in the shipyard and other workplaces. Workers in the yard looked to their trade union representatives for a lead. One account paints the scene: “Shop stewards on 14 August were being stopped all over the Yard by men asking what was going to happen, what were the unions doing, were they going to give a lead. Still other older men and some “die-hards” were urging drastic action against the ‘papists’” (McInerney, p9).
At this point, the situation could have gone either way. Either the workers would stand together or, if the sectarians got the upper hand, Catholics would once again find themselves driven from their jobs, precipitating similar moves elsewhere. Although no initiative came from the formal union structures in the yard, fifty shop stewards, under pressure from their members, gathered and held an impromptu meeting. On the suggestion of Sandy Scott, a senior shop steward in the Boilermakers’ union, it was decided to call a mass meeting of the entire workforce the following day.
A resolution was prepared. It read: “This mass meeting of shipyard workers calls on the people of Northern Ireland for the immediate restoration of peace throughout the community. We recognise that the continuation of the present civil disorder can only end in economic disaster. We appeal to all responsible people to join with us in giving a lead to break the cycle of mutual recrimination arising from the day to day incidents” (McInerney, p10). The resolution went on to call for a token strike to show the determination of the workforce on the matter. It also demanded that the government take strong measures to maintain law and order.
That night saw the worst of the violence in the Falls and Ardoyne and, the next morning, the shipyard and other factories were alive with rumours of an IRA offensive and fears of imminent civil war. The shop stewards held their ground and, not without a great deal of apprehension, went ahead with the mass meeting. By 1.30pm, virtually every one of the 8,000 workers had assembled. Besides Sandy Scott, the platform included the Unionist Minister for Commerce Roy Bradford, the Belfast Lord Mayor and a Methodist minister. However, it was what Scott had to say on behalf of the shop stewards which the majority of workers had come to hear.
Scott stressed the importance of the meeting and argued “if we all act as workers irrespective of our religions we can hope for an expansion in work opportunities and a better life” (McInerney, p10). His appeal for class unity hit a chord with the vast majority of those present and this silenced the bigots in the crowd, some of whom had come equipped with union jacks and placards containing sectarian slogans. The resolution was put to the vote and passed unanimously. The yard then emptied as the token strike began.
That night, Sandy Scott and fellow boilermaker shop steward James McFaul toured the barricaded area of West Belfast, visiting homes of Catholic shipyard workers who had been too scared to go to work that day. They brought news of the meeting and urged these workers to come back to work, which most did.
The shipyard meeting gave the lead to other factories. With the example of Harland and Wolff behind them, other shop stewards were able to hold off attempts to introduce sectarianism and intimidate workers from their jobs. The shipyard meeting was also crucial in giving an impulse to the formation of the East Belfast peace vigilantes. Workers in these bodies were able to extend the class solidarity seen in the shipyard into the working class estates.
This unity was not maintained easily or without a struggle. Right-wing loyalists stepped up efforts to inject division both into the workplaces and the trade unions. At the end of August, ex-NILP right winger Billy Hull launched a body called the Workers’ Committee for the Defence of the Constitution, a thinly disguised attempt to divide the unions along sectarian lines. Hull’s activities received only a limited echo, largely because of the initiative taken in the shipyard on 15th August. A few weeks later, when loyalists attempted to put up barricades at the shipyard entrances protesting about the fact that Catholic areas were still sealed off by barricades, the workers quickly removed them and trouble was averted.
Paisley’s influence over working class Protestants was limited, again partially due to the role of the shipyard shop stewards and those involved in the peace committees and vigilante groups. At the end of August, he announced a car cavalcade to Stormont to protest against steps being taken by the Westminster government to place the B-Specials under control of the British Army and to begin to disarm them. The protest was banned and only 100 people bothered to turn up to defy the ban.
Not outdone, in mid-September, Paisley issued a threat that he would organise a general strike if the government did not remove the Catholic barricades and move into these areas to restore ‘law and order’. He announced that 100,000 would march to Stormont on 30th September, protesting against any reform of the B-Specials. Despite the heightened political atmosphere and the anger which had been nurtured by the burnings and killings, these calls fell on deaf ears. Workers valued shop floor unity above calls for sectarian stoppages. Only 185 out of the 8,000 shipyard workers supported Paisley’s 30th September rally. The promised 100,000 turned out to be a paltry crowd of 3,000.
The action taken entirely on their own initiative by hundreds, if not thousands of shop stewards and other workers had an enormous impact. The leaders of the peace committees in East Belfast and elsewhere were not revolutionaries. Sandy Scott was an NILP member who stood on the right of the party and, in later years, was to be one of the architects of its decline into a sectarian political rump. David Bleakley also stood on Labour’s right-wing. The fact that Unionist politicians were invited to address the shipyard meeting and that the resolution which was presented called upon the government to enforce ‘law and order’ indicated both the outlook of the organisers and the low level of consciousness of this anti-sectarian movement.
None of this can detract from the movement itself. Given only half a lead, the workers of the shipyard and other workplaces and workers in one community after another had taken action to preserve class unity, turning instinctively to their trade union organisations for a lead. In this, they displayed an infinitely higher degree of class awareness and raw courage than was put on display by the leaders of the labour movement.
While actions of the peace committees and the shop stewards might arrest the development of sectarian reaction for a time, on their own, they could not crush it. Their actions were localised and purely defensive. Those which were based in either predominantly Protestant or predominantly Catholic areas had no means of contact. All they could do was attempt to maintain peace in their own areas. Within the defence committees, there was no leadership with either the understanding, the stature or the will to draw these bodies together into a force which would co-ordinate the defence of all areas. There was no one capable of forging links with the genuine defence committees which had been set up behind the Catholic barricades in Belfast and Derry. There was no programme of class demands which could have permitted a turn from purely defensive to offensive action to undermine the base of support of the bigots on both sides. The responsibility to provide such a lead rested firmly with the trade union and labour leaders. The trade unions could have provided the means to link all these organisations together. They could have convened a special conference, inviting representatives from every peace committee, every vigilante group, from the defence committees in the Bogside and the barricaded areas of Belfast, from tenants’ groups and from shop stewards’ committees and trade councils. At such a conference, the authentic voice of the working class would have been heard. From this, a united workers’ defence force could have been created, a force which could have been democratically run with an elected leadership and regular conferences to hear the views of the rank-and-file. With such a force in existence and by taking the issues to the workplaces and mobilising the 215,000 trade union members, a way could have been found into even the most difficult areas, such as the Shankill.
A workers’ defence force would not, in and of itself, have answered all the problems of the North and these problems, unless tackled, would inevitably find their reflection within it, resulting in divisions and even splits at a certain stage. The only way to avert this would have been to tie the issue of defence to an all-out political offensive against sectarianism, against repression and against poverty. An initiative on defence should have been tied to a political initiative to expand and transform the NILP, converting it into a fighting, socialist organisation. This would have had a dramatic impact even at this late stage, despite the entrenchment of sectarianism caused by the August pogroms. The situation could have been turned around but, by now, nothing short of such a far-reaching and decisive action would do.
Thanks to the heroism of the rank-and-file, the initiative had been temporarily restored to the workers’ organisations. Tragically, and in a particularly disgraceful manner, the leadership of these organisations proved themselves yet again unsuited to the task and unworthy of their positions.
The Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU issued a statement applauding the actions of trade unionists who “maintained the fundamental principle of trade union solidarity and set an example to the rest of the community” (Belfast Telegraph, 19/08/1969). But beyond these words of praise, they took not a single step to assist or develop the initiatives undertaken by their members. This is not to say that the trade union leaders did not busy themselves in activity. NIC-ICTU secretary Billy Blease later claimed that the Northern Ireland Committee had been in almost permanent session during August and September, holding twelve meetings and innumerable sub-committee meetings. The problem was not a lack of activity, it was the nature and fruits of this activity. They did issue a special document called Programme for Peace and Progress in Northern Ireland, 30,000 copies of which were circulated to trade unions, government ministers, to political parties and to business organisations.
On the burning issue of the hour, the question of defence, the document, after congratulating the work of rank-and-file trade unionists, gave this advice: “the NIC calls on all members of the trade union movement and all organisations within the trade union movement to accept the responsibility of using their influence to the full support of the programme for peace and progress in Northern Ireland” (NIC-ICTU, 1969, p7). As to how this should be done – not a single word. On the need to co-ordinate the work of the shop stewards’ committees and the defence and peace committees – nothing. A brief section dealt with ‘security and liberty’. It read: “We recognise that a democratic state requires powers to protect its security and the liberty of its citizens. Legislation appropriate to this purpose which protects the principle of innocence until guilt is proven should take the place of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act N.I. 1922” (NIC-ICTU, p7).
Rather than mobilise their members, the union tops in effect preached passivity and urged reliance on the army and the police. After 50 years of Unionist misrule and Unionist oppression, all they had to say on defence and security was that the reviled Special Powers Act should be replaced with a more ‘democratic’ piece of repressive legislation – a more presentable version of the same thing.
As well as producing and circulating this document, the union leaders met political parties, sent delegations to meet the Westminster government and also to meet the Unionists: in short, they went here, there and everywhere, except to their own membership!
They entered into talks with officials representing the Unionist government in September. The outcome was an agreement by the government to give NIC-ICTU an annual grant of £5,000, quickly raised to £10,000, to cover union training. According to the historian Andy Boyd, who at one time was an ICTU employee, a memo of one meeting marked ‘in confidence’ indicated that both union leaders and government officials present noted “the growing acceptance by the trade union movement itself of corporate responsibilities for the disciplined exercise of the power of organised Labour” (Boyd, p50). It mentioned the need for “new powers to settle or avert serious disputes and in particular, to deal with inter-union disputes and unofficial or unconstitutional strikes” (Boyd, p51).
To rank-and-file activists, the Unionist grant was blood money. With it, the Unionists hoped to buy compliance, not only on the question of unofficial strikes but also on their general policies. At five or even ten thousand pounds a year, it was cheap at the price.
The battered and discredited Unionist administration chose to lean on the trade union leadership to help it restore its tarnished image. Above all, it wanted trade union backing for its efforts to get rid of the barricades and restore its ‘law’ and its ‘order’ to the tens of thousands of working class Catholics now in open rebellion against it. Very largely to this end, Chichester Clark and three other Unionist ministers met with NIC-ICTU representatives on 8th September. After what must have been a cordial meeting given the measures of agreement recorded, a joint statement was issued. This pledged support for the reforms which had already been agreed. Dealing with industrial relations, it gave an assurance “to all concerned with investment in Northern Ireland that all operatives in factories are determined that nothing should interfere with the efficient production of the firm” (Statement issued jointly by Stormont government. and NIC-ICTU, 08/09/1969).
Having thus dealt with strikes, it went on to issues related to the violence, urging “confidence in the forces of law and order”, this less than a month after the RUC had machine-gunned civilians. Further, it urged “everyone to keep off the streets unless it is essential in the pursuance of their lawful business”, and then stressed “that gatherings of dissident groups should not be encouraged or supported”. Instead of developing the defence and peace committees, the union leaders were now singing in chorus with the Unionists that the streets should be cleared so that the power of the state could be fully restored.
On the critical issue of the barricades, the real meat of the discussion as far as the government was concerned, the statement concluded: “the most valuable contribution that people can make at this time is to try to secure the removal of the barricades by peaceful and voluntary means in conjunction with the security forces.” In other words, the plain message of the trade unions to those who had fought heroically to free their areas from this repressive state was to urge unconditional surrender. It was no accident that, two days after this meeting, Chichester Clark felt confident enough to issue a statement calling for all barricades in Belfast to come down. Almost at once, Billy Blease responded on behalf of NIC-ICTU, saying that Chichester Clark’s words “could provide a basis for building a new community and should be accepted and supported by all persons of goodwill” (Belfast Telegraph, 10/09/1969).
One month later, a special union delegate conference was called to discuss ‘community relations’. This was a long way removed from the rank-and-file conference of shop stewards and defence groups which was required. Not only were delegations strictly limited to largely exclude the voice of the rank-and-file, the sessions were held in camera so that the ranks of the movement could not even know what was discussed. The main guest speaker was Chichester Clark, who a few weeks before had made his contribution to ‘community relations’ by mobilising the B-Specials and accepting in principle Paisley’s proposal for a ‘people’s’, that is Protestant, militia. This arch enemy of trade unions and trade unionism congratulated the trade unions by saying “recent grim events have tested all their institutions, but organised Labour had passed the test with flying colours”. The backslapping was mutual. At the end of the proceedings, Andy Barr of the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union (and also a leading Communist Party member) praised the Prime Minister and the Minister for Community Relations on the “very forthright way they had spoken about the problems of the province” (ICTU report of the conference).
While rank-and-file trade unionists and especially the advanced layer of the working class fought, often at great personal risk, to keep sectarianism out of the unions, their leaders were busy embracing the very people who were the authors of sectarianism. Unionism had maintained its fifty-year rule by trampling on the rights of the working class, by using sectarianism to keep workers apart, to divide unions and weaken the Labour Party. At last, their rotten Unionist state was faced with disintegration, but rather than mobilise their forces to deliver the coup de grace, the union leaders offered the kiss of life. While they engaged themselves in this PR exercise for the government, the real character of Unionism remained unchanged. After the August upheaval, the government used the Special Powers to arrest and effectively intern thirty people who they accused of having instigated the uprising. This they did heedless of the fact that many of the real ‘instigators’ of the violence were within their cabinet and in the ranks of their party.
‘Betrayal’ is not a word to be used lightly, but no milder term is adequate to describe NIC-ICTU’s complicity with the government at this time. They scorned the appeals of the rank-and-file for assistance in defeating sectarianism and instead humbly offered their services to Chichester Clark as a prop to his worthless administration. Their role throughout the period of the civil rights struggle had been a baleful one, but now faced with a graver situation and a greater challenge, their sell out was more open, more complete than ever.
Because they sheltered in the embrace of the government, it was impossible for the union leaders to reach out a hand to the beleaguered communities behind the barricades and so they effectively cut themselves off from 150,000 people who were at the front line of the confrontation with the state. These ‘liberated areas’ had become universities of revolution. As the people participated twenty-four hours a day in the defence and running of the areas, political issues were raised and intensely discussed and, even in the context of overall sectarian reaction, a decided shift to the left was taking place within them.
A visit by Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan at the end of August gave a glimpse of the political atmosphere in the Bogside. Shortly before his visit, a tricolour was raised at a barricade and an argument broke out whether it should stay. Eventually, only a few people voted to keep it against hundreds who voted to take it down and move it to Rossville Flats where it would be flown alongside the Starry Plough, the flag of James Connolly and a much more appropriate symbol of what was taking place.
Callaghan was brought by John Hume into the Bogside where a crowd of thousands turned out to see him, all intent on articulating the grievances of the area. One man approached him with a photograph taken during his last visit to Derry in 1954, when he had come to investigate unemployment. The picture showed Callaghan talking to an unemployed man. Now, this same man held up the photograph and said: “Yes you’re right. This picture was taken in 1954. I was unemployed then and I have not had a day’s work since” (Callaghan, p85).
This right-wing Labour parliamentarian was uncomfortable, out of place and out of his depth in the revolutionary atmosphere in Derry. Such was the throng of people who jostled to approach him that he had to be shepherded into a house. From there, he made an impromptu speech sympathising with the plight of the Bogsiders and promising changes – a speech made as much to give him a passport out of the area as anything else. It was well received by most of the audience. However, indicating the turbulent political atmosphere in the area, just around the corner from where Callaghan was speaking, Derry Young Socialists were holding a public meeting on his visit and criticising the role of the Labour government. While thousands listened to Callaghan, several thousand also heard Young Socialist speakers spell out the need for socialist ideas.
Callaghan eventually moved on from the Bogside to visit the Protestant Fountain area, where barricades were also in place. Chameleon like, he changed his political colouring to suit his new audience. As he approached the area, Protestants at a barricade began to sing ‘God Save the Queen’. Callaghan’s reaction was to promptly snap to attention.
As the Derry Defence Association expanded, so it became more sharply polarised between the ‘moderates’ and the left. Derry Labour Party and Young Socialist representatives articulated most clearly the militant mood of the people, especially of the youth, and the desire to avoid sectarianism. One issue of Barricades Bulletin posed the question: “What are we defending?” It explained: “We are defending the homes of the predominantly Catholic working class areas of the Bogside and Creggan against either organised sectarian terror at the hands of the RUC or the semi-organised sectarian terror at the hands of the Specials and Protestant workers who should know a lot better.”
“That is why the barricades are up. The barricades must stay up until we are sure we are all safe from state controlled terror or victimisation.
“We are not defending the social conditions of the people in the area, the low wages, unemployment, bad housing, etc.
“In fact the greatest part of our fight is the fight against these conditions.
“Just because barricades have to be erected around the Catholic area of the Bogside doesn’t mean we believe in Catholic power. People in Protestant areas have a perfect right to defend themselves if they feel they are going to be attacked by Catholic bigots” (Reprinted in Militant, No. 53, September 1969).
Left-wing groups, especially the Labour Party Young Socialists, held regular open meetings. Crudely stencilled leaflets would be issued to announce a meeting or open discussion at a certain time and a particular place, usually at a barricade. Sometimes hundreds would turn up to soak up the ideas put forward and to contribute to the debate.
All this was sheer anathema to the more conservative leaders of the Defence Association who feared the radicalisation and the far-reaching ideas and demands now being raised. Their objective was simply to maintain the barricades until a few limited concessions could be wrung from the government. As time went on, as the atmosphere of freedom and self-government continued, as the population leaned more to the left, so the stakes tended to be raised, so people became less ready to accept taking down the barricades in return for a mealy-mouthed political compromise.
The feeling of the people, spoken and unspoken, was more and more that when Stormont goes, the barricades would go, and not before.
Aware of this, the self-styled ‘moderates’ began to discourage political discussion and political meetings. Re-working an old tune, they argued that ‘politics’, particularly divisive class ideas, should not be raised because this would upset the ‘unity’ of the area. The Young Socialists were especially singled out for attack.
At one point, three leading Young Socialists members – Paul Jones, Gerry Lynch and John Throne, all of whom either were or would become members of Militant – were summoned to meet three leaders of the Citizens’ Defence Association. At the meeting, the Defence Association members outlined in no uncertain terms their view that the political meetings should stop and they were prepared to take action to ensure they would stop. The three Defence Association members who wanted to censor ideas, curb democratic activity and stifle discussion were Sean Keenan, an old guard republican and a founder of the Defence Association; Paddy ‘Bogside’ Doherty, an associate of John Hume for several years; and James Doherty, a wealthy businessman and chairman of the Nationalist Party. The Young Socialists refused to accede to these demands but others on the left did bow to the pressure of the Defence Association and to the mood for ‘unity’ which they were whipping up, and the momentum of political activity did decline somewhat.
The situation in Belfast was similar. Following the August pogroms, barricades were erected around predominately Catholic areas in North and West Belfast. As in Derry, this was an entirely spontaneous eruption from below, a mass uprising in which tens of thousands of working class people for the first time took their destiny into their own hands. Also as in Derry, the mass of workers were clear on what they were fighting against but at this stage had only a hazy conception of what they were fighting for. Within two days of the 14th August pogroms, a Central Citizens’ Defence Committee had been set up with 95 delegates from working class housing estates throughout the barricaded areas. By September, there were representatives from Ardoyne, Cromac Street, Clonard, Cavendish Street, Whiterock, Ballymurphy, Falls, Short Strand, Unity Walk, New Lodge, Dock, North Queen Street, Turf Lodge, St James, Rockmount Street, Iveagh, Hamill Street, La Salle and Beechmount – in other words, from most of the main Catholic concentrations in the city.
Like in Derry, these Defence Committees sprang up to protect their areas from sectarian attack and were generally anti-sectarian in outlook. The third issue of the CCDC newsletter Citizen Press, issued on 21st August, condemned threats made against Protestants living in Donegal, just across the border from Derry. It said: “For members of the Catholic community to attack Protestants is to sink to the same level as the B Specials and the Unionist extremists … The defence committees in the Catholic areas must offer the fullest protection to the Protestant families and Catholic sectarians caught interfering with these families should be severely dealt with”.
Unlike Derry, the Catholic areas of Belfast had not gone through almost a year of turmoil and there was no equivalent organisation to play the leadership role played by Derry Labour Party. For these reasons, the political consciousness of the unfolding mass movement was at a lower level. The CCDC was mainly made up of workers fresh to struggle but it was dominated at the top by leading members of the republican movement, its most prominent being Jim Sullivan, a republican from the lower Falls; by local Catholic clergy and also by a few Catholic businessmen. Its propaganda echoed the position of the republican movement, putting forward demands for ‘minimum reform’: abolish the B-Specials, reorganise and disarm the RUC, release political prisoners, Westminster intervention to grant civil rights, and a general political amnesty. These, it argued, could be a basis around which to negotiate the removal of the barricades. The concern of its leading figures was not to attempt to develop the mass movement but rather, from the first moment, was with how this movement could be brought to an end.
Although no equivalent of the Derry Labour Party existed, and while the CDCC was never fully democratic, nonetheless the pressure of the masses made itself felt. The entire area became a fertile laboratory of political discussion. A week after the initial fighting had subsided, a meeting called in Andersonstown to discuss whether to keep the barricades up drew a crowd of 1,000 who decided they must stay. The role of the more conservative elements on the CDCC, especially the clergy, was to try to limit discussion and mass involvement, fearful that they might otherwise be ejected from their leading positions and lose control.
Their hesitancy and obstruction was clear when a group of four Labour MPs were invited to visit the area and address a public meeting. The invitation came from local Labour MP Paddy Devlin and the meeting was organised by Falls Labour Party which, while it never played the role of its sister party in Derry, was still one of the most active political organisations behind the barricades. Eventually, the CDCC agreed to back this meeting against the opposition of prominent local priest Father Murphy who, at one point, issued a statement to the local press cancelling it.
The NILP leadership were as unhappy about this meeting as were people like Father Murphy. After it was banned by the government, Devlin’s sole NILP parliamentary colleague Vivian Simpson issued a statement saying that, in view of the ban, it should not go ahead. It had apparently escaped his attention that the writ of Stormont no longer ran behind the barricades!
The meeting did go ahead, but was sabotaged by the NILP leadership. 2,000 turned out in Leeson Street in the Lower Falls but while they stood around in anticipation, the four MPs were being shown around other parts of the city by NILP leaders. The crowd waited, despite pouring rain, but by late afternoon, with still no speakers, Paddy Devlin had to agree reluctantly to call it off. The incident showed a thirst for ideas and an instinctive leaning towards Labour. It also starkly exposed the rottenness of the NILP leaders who did not want to be associated with the ‘illegal’ and ‘extra-parliamentary’ forms of struggle adopted by the living movement around them. Just as frightened of this movement as the government, they squandered this and every other opportunity to place the labour movement in a leading role.
The British ruling class were no less alarmed than the Unionists at what they witnessed in the sealed off areas of Belfast and Derry: working class districts under the control of the people who lived in them; the open advocacy and growing support for left-wing ideas – all this horrified them. The Economist voiced its concern that “the young leaders of People’s Democracy, Civil Rights and the various bands of radical socialism … are being listened to behind the barricades”. The same journal’s description of life in Derry must have sent tremors through the boardrooms and select clubs of London: “In William Street, before the main barricade across Rossville Street, the words ‘forward to a workers’ republic’ are painted in the roadway. ‘No police state but a workers revolution now’ drips from a burnt out factory wall and the flag of the Connolly Association [Starry Plough] has been paraded with the Irish tricolour in the heady meetings of the Bogside area” (13/09/1969).
The ruling class had sent in troops to prevent civil war but also to restore the crumbling authority of the capitalist state and to avert the danger of the working class, even in the midst of sectarian reaction, rising to take control of their own affairs. For this reason, the continued existence of barricaded areas, where the authority of parliament and the control of the capitalist state machine no longer applied, was absolutely intolerable from their point of view.
The question was not whether the ruling class were determined to remove the barricades, it was when and how to do it. When the troops first appeared in Derry, there was an uneasy moment as the Bogsiders waited to see if they would attempt to march into their area, producing a confrontation with at least some of the defenders. Only when it became clear that the troops would remain on the perimeter of the Bogside did a sense of relief sweep through the area and the friendly welcomes begin.
To attempt to take any of these areas by force would immediately place the troops in direct conflict with the Catholic community. Their honeymoon would be over. Very quickly, they would be regarded as another RUC, this time in khaki. Commenting on the idea of taking the Bogside by force, General Freeland astutely remarked: “I can do it. It will take three hours to occupy it and totally control it and three years to get my men out again.”
On more than one occasion, the army tested the mood in the Catholic areas of Belfast by moving in and taking down a few barricades. Each time, they met with resistance. On Monday 8th September, at the same time as he was making overtures to the trade union leaders, Chichester Clark, in a gesture to the Unionist right-wing, announced that all barricades must come down within twenty-four hours. Army commanders who knew the mood on the ground were horrified and the Prime Minister’s words went unheeded.
Another factor which the ruling class and the army tops had to weigh up was the mood among the troops and their sympathies for the beleaguered Catholic communities. The young soldiers were of working class backgrounds and mostly from areas of high unemployment in Britain. While not a conscript army in a military sense, they were economic conscripts enlisted through poverty and, as such, could associate with the grievances and the suffering of the impoverished people behind the barricades. They would have been reluctant to perform the dirty work of the Unionists by re-taking areas from which their sectarian forces had been successfully repelled.
Derry Labour Party, in an historic initiative, produced a leaflet appealing to the troops, asking them to refuse any orders to move against the Bogside. The circulation of this leaflet showed that the automatic instinct of a genuine mass movement and a fighting, socialist organisation is to approach the forces of the state with a class appeal designed to win sympathy among the troops and to open up class divisions between the ordinary squaddies and the elite officer caste. In later years, the idea of appealing to the troops was to be regarded as treachery in Catholic areas. In place of a correct and revolutionary policy of fraternisation, the predominant slogan became ‘no fraternisation’ and those who did not obey were subject to tarring and feathering, kneecapping or worse. The only appeal allowed was Provisional IRA style, with bullets. Derry Labour Party stood in the best traditions of the workers’ movement internationally, in the traditions of the Bolsheviks, in issuing this appeal. Their leaflet is a model of class propaganda and had a big effect. It is worth reproducing this historic leaflet in full.
“To the soldiers of the Queen’s Own Regiment.
We wish to welcome you to Derry. You probably know about what has been happening here. For the past 10 months there have been riots between the people of our area and the police.
The troops were called in when things got to such a state that the British government decided to take a hand.
We never wanted to fight the police, or to fight anyone. But they made us do it. We set out to protest against what was being done to our area and our people by the Unionist government.
Maybe they didn’t tell you that the male unemployment rate in this city is 18%. That in the catholic [sic] working class area it can go as high as over 30%.
Imagine if that was the situation in your home town. Wouldn’t you protest? Wouldn’t you go out in the street and demand that something was done about it?
That’s what we did, and the government sent the RUC to beat us off the streets. They beat women and children, they beat an innocent man in his own house to death on April 19th last, they smashed the windows of our homes and shouted through the holes in the glass about what they would do if we came out.
So we fought them, we make no bones about it. We would fight them again if they came into our area to do the same thing. We have no quarrel with any of you. We hope you are happy here.
We hope you will not be asked to come into areas because you know and we know that you will not stay here forever and if the area is taken from us and then you go away the RUC will come back.
That is why we have to defend our area against everyone until big changes take place. If you are asked to march into our area you are being asked to walk over us and to help beat us down again and we are working people like yourselves.
We ask you to refuse to do that.”
Because of the difficulties presented by the option of using force, the strategy of the ruling c+lass was to talk the barricades down. The British government followed up the sending of troops with a promise of further reform. The B-Specials would be ‘phased out’, a legal commission under Lord Cameron was announced to investigate the Derry riots and Lord Hunt, of Everest fame, was commissioned to head an examination into the role of the RUC and the B-Specials.
These measures, together with Callaghan’s visit and his walkabout on the Falls and in the Bogside, were aimed at reassuring the Catholic community and so allow the government to strike a deal with the more conservative and more pliant elements in the leadership of the Defence Committees.
The government were aware that they would have to move quickly, knowing that the initiative they had gained by sending in the troops would not stay with them. By early September, army commanders in Belfast were meeting regularly with CCDC leaders. On 11th September, a delegation from the Defence Committees, consisting of Jim Sullivan, a lawyer called Jim McSparron and three MPs – Paddy Devlin, Gerry Fitt and Republican Labour MP Paddy Kennedy – travelled to London to negotiate with Callaghan. Also in London, representing local peace committees, were Catholic businessman and emerging CCDC leader Tom Conaty and Father Murphy.
During the discussions, Callaghan gave assurances that the army would continue to provide defence if the barricades came down. When the delegation returned, they reported that weekend to a 120-strong meeting of representatives of defence groups from all over Belfast. The meeting expressed strong reservations about Callaghan’s assurances and about the continued use of the Special Powers Act. Despite this, the next day, Father Murphy issued a press release stating wrongly that the delegates had not dissented from what had been on offer in London.
Murphy then attempted to use the influence of the Church to outflank the CCDC, that evening calling a meeting in a school in the Lower Falls to which he invited a Catholic bishop, Bishop Philbin, to speak. Murphy maintained his own contacts with the army and a local army commander who telephoned him that night was assured that it would be alright for the army to begin the operation to remove the barricades the next morning.
The army began their operation as Murphy had suggested and he further obliged by touring the area with the troops as they began to dismantle the barricades. Local people were having none of it and put them back up again. The Church did not have the authority to enforce the treacherous blow it had tried to deliver.
Meanwhile, negotiations continued between the CCDC and senior army figures. The CCDC representatives made it publically clear that they would settle for much less than the original six demands which they had put forward. Despite strong dissent from rank-and-file delegates, the leadership were prepared to compromise and, on the 16th and 17th September, the barricades started to come down, local people accepting the authority of the CCDC and reluctantly agreeing to remove them. Not all came down initially, however. In fact, the last were to stay up until the second week of October.
Derry Labour Party publically criticised the climb-down by the Belfast CCDC. They particularly castigated the role played by the Church leaders, pointing out that the intervention of Bishop Philbin would reaffirm Protestant suspicions, giving an entirely false impression of the influence of the Catholic Church in the mass movement. However, the Derry Defence Association agreed by a majority to follow the example of Belfast and on 22nd September, after nine weeks of magnificent defiance, the makeshift barriers which had marked the perimeters of ‘Free Derry’ began to disappear. Through a conspiracy of churchmen, businessmen and politicians, the narrow horizons of compromise triumphed over the marvellous and inspiring movements of resistance. This uprising, which had paralysed the Unionist state, freeing whole areas from the clutches of Unionist repression, was brought to an end in exchange for only the most minimal of concessions. Rarely has so much been sold for so little.
The physical entity of ‘Free Derry’ was gone. Military police, at first in liaison with local community leaders, were soon to patrol the area and later a few police patrols, accompanied by large military escorts, also came in. ‘Free Derry’ as a psychological entity continued to exist – in the minds of the majority of the 30,000 people of the Bogside and Creggan who were never again prepared to willingly submit to Stormont.
While the furore of 12th to 15th August was not to be repeated, there were ongoing sectarian incidents. At the end of September, attacks were made on Unity Walk and a whole street between the Shankill and Falls was burned. Shooting incidents took place in the New Lodge area of North Belfast. In Derry, one person died in fighting which broke out shortly after the barricades came down. Fighting also took place between Protestants from the Woodstock area of East Belfast and Catholics from the nearby Short Strand.
Because of the need to lean on the CCDC leaders to ‘talk’ the barricades down, and also the need to appease the Catholic middle class, the state was keen to show its impartiality in the handling of violence. On 6th October, a march down the Shankill Road by 500 loyalists was forcibly halted by the RUC and B-Specials. Protestants were not used to such treatment from ‘their forces’ and, probably for the first time since the Outdoor Relief riots in 1932, the Specials were jeered on the Shankill.
This proved a pleasing spectacle to the CCDC leaders. The following day, Hugh Kennedy, press officer of this organisation, paid tribute to the new ‘even-handedness’ of the state forces: “I feel we cannot compliment the army enough and we must also compliment the RUC riot squad and D.I. Harry Shute for the way in which they acted when they came under heavy attack from a mob of between 400-600 people” (Belfast Telegraph, 06/10/1969). Jim Sullivan, soon to be a prominent and key member of the Official Republican Movement, pronounced that the CCDC “were now confident that the army would provide adequate protection” (Irish News, 07/10/1969).
The findings of Lord Hunt’s investigation into the role of the police was published on 10th October. Among Hunt’s recommendations were the establishment of a police authority, the disarming of the RUC, the creation of a new RUC reserve force, a change in the colour of the RUC uniforms, the disbandment of the B-Specials and the creation of a new force, the Ulster Defence Regiment. In addition, the RUC Inspector General was to be replaced by a London policeman, Sir Arthur Young.
The trade unions, the NILP and Catholic politicians all gave unqualified welcome to these recommendations. Speaking of the police reserve, Austin Currie went so far as to say; “I am prepared to apply for membership” (Belfast Telegraph, 10/10/1969). John Hume welcomed the findings while his fellow civil rights independent MP Ivan Cooper appealed to Catholics to join the RUC. The NICRA Executive stated “the long term good requires all sections of the community to join and help the forces” (Belfast Telegraph, 23/10/1969).
While it earned plaudits from these quarters, the Hunt report caused outrage in many hard-line Protestant areas. The report was published on a Friday and by the Saturday a number of main roads were barricaded in Protestant areas of North, West and East Belfast. That night, a crowd of thousands assembled on the Shankill Road and major rioting broke out. During this fighting, armed loyalists fired shots and an RUC Constable, Victor Arbuckle, was killed. Ironically, the first policeman to die during the Troubles had fallen victim to a bullet fired by a loyalist who was protesting against the disarming of the RUC.
It is no less ironic that it was the Protestant population of the Shankill who were the first people to taste the real methods of the British army; not cordial smiles and friendly gestures, but naked and brutal repression. Troops were deployed on the Shankill to quell rioting and, for first time since their arrival in August, the order was given to open fire. The army claimed they fired 66 shots. Two Protestants were killed and many more injured.
The rioting spread to other Protestant areas in North and East Belfast. On the Shankill, fierce fighting continued through the night. Troops, ill-trained to deal with this type of civil disorder, responded with particular brutality, dishing out beatings, breaking into houses and beating up the occupants. One man, unfortunate enough to be arrested, had both his arms broken and another had his skull fractured.
The next day, troops sealed off the Shankill and began a massive arms search. Houses were ransacked as soldiers moved methodically from street to street through the district. A Major Hitchcock acknowledged “we are searching everything, I’m afraid we’re not being very polite about it” (Irish News, 13/10/1969).
The task of dealing with loyalist bigots or any other bigots is a task which only the working class can carry out. Socialists cannot endorse repressive methods used by the state, even against such people. Such methods aimed in one direction one day can be aimed in a different direction the next and can end up used to break the solidarity of the labour movement. In any case, the heavy-handed methods of the army on the Shankill Road on the 11th and 12th October had only one effect – to antagonise the entire population of the area and to give more credence and support to groups like the Shankill Defence Association, who were to the forefront in organising resistance to this military incursion.
However, the CCDC leaders had nothing but praise for what had happened. By refusing to condemn army methods on the Shankill, they drove a further wedge between the two communities. Their applause and encouragement made it easier for the army to rehearse the very methods of repression which would soon become part and parcel of daily life in Catholic working class areas of Belfast.
It was not an idle coincidence that, only a few days after the Shankill riots, the CCDC leaders, encouraged by this display of military ‘even-handedness’, reached an agreement with the state to allow the police to come back into the Falls. On the morning of 16th October, the newly appointed RUC Inspector General, Sir Arthur Young, was conducted on a tour of the area by Jim Sullivan and Father Murphy.
In Derry, on the very day of the publication of the Hunt Report, the Citizens’ Defence Association announced it was to disband. Its chairman Sean Keenan, later to be associated with the Provisional wing of the republican movement, said that the government “might wait a week before sending in the RUC, but this is entirely a matter for the military authorities. With the police force reorganised there will be no objection from the residents of the Bogside. I hope they will be wearing their new uniforms when they come in” (Belfast Telegraph, 11/10/1969). One finding of the Hunt Report which initially did not attract that much attention was the proposal to create a new force, the Ulster Defence Regiment, a locally based regiment of the British army. One month later, the formation of an initial 600 strong battalion was formally announced. While Hunt recommended that the RUC be disarmed, this new force would be permitted to carry arms ‘under certain circumstances’. The government promised, though, that they would not be used for crowd control or riot duties.
The reaction of the most prominent civil rights leaders was to give an unreserved welcome to this new force. Echoing his earlier appeal for Catholics to join the police reserve, Austin Currie said: “I will encourage all members of the community to join the new force” (Irish News, 13/11/1969). Ivan Cooper and Rory O’Hanlon, both MPs who were leaders of the civil rights movement, enthusiastically concurred.
It wasn’t long before clear indications emerged as to what the true character of the UDR would be – a revamped, if more professional and slightly more disciplined, version of the B-Specials. It was discovered that all ex-members of the B-Specials had been sent application forms for the new force. This did not dampen the enthusiasm of Austin Currie, who merely argued that this was all the more reason for ‘anti-unionists’ to join, so as to prevent the unionists from making it into a Protestant force.
The failure of the Humes, Coopers and Curries to give a voice to the class anger and discontent in the Catholic areas, and their failure to explain the true role of the state forces now being prepared, was matched by a similar failure all-round. The great events of August 1969 drew previously inactive masses of workers into activity. These workers looked to the established trade union leadership and to other organisations claiming to represent their interests and found all to be wanting. The civil rights leaders were suspended in mid-air, reduced to impotent gesture of walking out of Stormont as the Bogside and areas of Belfast rose in open revolt. The IRA, the self-proclaimed defenders of the Catholic population, were exposed as powerless shadows, incapable of protecting anyone.
Fresh layers of workers and youth were moving into activity, seeking out an alternative but, instead of an organisation or a movement which could offer a way forward, there existed only a vacuum. It was inevitable, especially given the shortcomings of the labour and trade union leaders, that new forces would emerge to fill that vacuum.
Less than five months after the upheaval of August, the existence of a Provisional Army Council of the IRA was announced. A deep and irreparable division was taking place within the republican movement and a new force was being formed. In part, the new Provisional IRA emerged as a result of a conspiracy hatched by a section of the Southern ruling class. More significantly, its formation was a consequence of the failure of the labour movement to provide an alternative and because of the shortcomings of the existing republican leadership, above all their complete inability to provide defence during the pogroms.
The onset of the civil rights agitation in the North had profoundly shaken the Southern ruling class, who looked with horror at the rapid emergence of new forces and new ideas which challenged and ultimately destroyed the tired ideas and tired leaders of nationalism, the people who had always acted as their proxies in the North. Also at this time, a distinctive shift to the left was taking place in the South. The Irish Labour Party was taking on flesh and was moving to the left. The Southern bourgeois and their political representatives in the Fianna Fáil government were petrified lest the social explosion in the North should trigger a similar reaction in the South.
A section of the Fianna Fáil leadership, backed by certain influential Southern businessmen, attempted to intervene to break up the tendency towards class unity, North and South, and to steer the movement back into the ‘safe’ channels of right-wing nationalism. A number of senior figures in Lynch’s Fianna Fáil cabinet acted, from the word go, as political mirrors of Paisleyism, attempting to inject the poison of sectarianism – in their case, Catholic sectarianism.
Donegal MP Neil Blaney, Minister for Agriculture in the Dublin government, had issued a statement after the 5th October march in Derry criticising the fact that the NICRA did not include the reunification of the country in its list of demands. In January 1969, he called for a Council of Ireland to be set up to link Dublin and Belfast. When the Nationalist Party suffered badly in the February 1969 elections, Fianna Fáil anxiety increased. Blaney, together with Finance Minister Charles Haughey and cabinet colleague Kevin Boland, met and discussed whether, in the event of their Nationalist Party being totally eclipsed, Fianna Fáil should organise in the North so as to attempt to take direct control of events.
The Irish cabinet met several times during the crisis month of August 1969. The suggestions of Blaney and others that Irish troops should be sent to the North were quickly dismissed by both the military and the more serious representatives of Southern capitalism. Instead, this body decided upon the emergency gesture of sending troops to the border. Also, a special fund for the relief of distress was established. £100,000 was allocated and a special cabinet sub-committee was set up to administer this ‘relief’. Haughey and Blaney were appointed to serve on this committee.
What concerned all sections of Fianna Fáil was not the distress of Northern Catholics – after all, this right-wing administration had scant regard for the economic and social distress of Catholics in the South. Fianna Fáil were distressed by the emergence of new leaders and new organisations over which they had little or no influence. They were no less terrified than were the British establishment at what was taking place behind the barricades, and exerted what influence they could to have them taken down. Their intervention and their ‘assistance’ was aimed at buying organisational and political influence so as to limit the movement in the North by harnessing it safely in the halter of Catholic sectarianism and nationalism.
Particular attention was paid by the cabinet sub-committee to the Northern defence committees. An intelligence officer in the Irish army, Captain Kelly, was asked to gather information on these committees. At the same time, a close confidante and speech writer of Blaney was discreetly given a brief to exert influence on leading figures within the committees. Various booklets were produced for the Committees, detailing events in the North, all financed by the Southern government and carefully sanitised so that they contained nothing which would disturb the green Tories of Fianna Fáil. On 12th October, the first issue of a newspaper called Voice of the North appeared. This was also financed from various bank accounts established by Fianna Fáil and, during its year of publication, it became a more and more blatant tool of Fianna Fáil propaganda.
A number of individuals within the defence committees were systematically groomed. Hugh Kennedy, PRO of the Belfast committee, ended up an unofficial mouthpiece for this Fianna Fáil body. Wealthy businessman Tom Conaty was promoted as a rival to both Jim Sullivan and Paddy Devlin, who were regarded as politically unreliable. With the aid of the Catholic Church, which was also in receipt of large sums of money from Southern cabinet sources, they eventually succeeded in ousting Sullivan from his position as CCDC chair and installing Tom Conaty in his stead.
The key issue in the minds of the Defence Committee activists in Belfast was the need to get arms so that the events of August would never be repeated. This gave the Irish government, with its huge fund, a lever with which they could exert control. On 5th October 1969, a special conference of representatives of all defence groups was held in Baileborough, Co Cavan, just over the border from the North. The hand of the Irish government was clear in the convening of this meeting. It was held in a hotel owned by a brother of Captain Kelly. At it, the subject of weapons for the North was openly discussed.
Members of the government sub-committee also established contacts directly with the IRA, as did Southern businessmen, in both cases to discuss the provision of finance to buy arms. The aid they promised was aid with strings. In various discussions with IRA leaders – including Sullivan, Billy McMillen and Francis Donnelly, an IRA leader in South Derry – firm conditions were attached to the supply of weapons. These were that the ‘socialist’ policies of the IRA should be dropped, that there should be a separate Northern command structure for the IRA (a move to take power away from the Southern leadership who had backed the IRA’s turn to ‘socialism’ in the 1960s), and that all IRA military activity be confined to the North.
Not finding the existing IRA leadership trustworthy or reliable on these questions, the cabinet sub-committee opened up simultaneous discussions with IRA dissidents in the North. As early as September 1969, meetings were being held with disaffected IRA members in Belfast. Money from the distress fund was transferred by various means to the IRA, but the evidence suggests that the bulk of this money was siphoned off to the dissident faction, the people who were soon to emerge as the Provisionals.
When the IRA eventually split, the old leaders who became known as the Officials put it all down to a conspiracy hatched in secret by the Southern government. That there was a conspiracy to inject right-wing nationalist ideas, there is no doubt. But to offer this as the sole explanation for what happened is to explain nothing. The intervention by right-wing politicians and Southern businessmen only acted as a yeast bringing about the division and, like yeast, it could only be effective under the right conditions, conditions which had been created not by Fianna Fáil, but by the errors of the existing IRA leadership.
The strategy of the dominant wing of republicanism in the 1960s – seeking only limited reform in the North – appeared to give recognition to the Northern state. While right-wing nationalists attacked the ‘socialism’ of Goulding and his allies, in truth, they fought only for minimal concessions within the context of capitalism, relegating ‘socialism’ to the dim and distant future. Their programme seemed hopelessly inadequate to the bulk of the Catholic youth, especially in face of the upheavals of August 1969. Then, the sight of the best known republican leaders conniving in the removal of the barricades and welcoming the hated RUC into the Catholic areas further isolated them from the youth.
But the most decisive factor in exposing and discrediting the IRA old guard was their failure to provide defence during the attacks on the Falls and Ardoyne in August. The IRA was regarded as a joke after these events, something which grated hard on the small numbers active within its rank in Belfast. It is said that graffiti on walls in Catholic Belfast read ‘IRA – I ran away’. Belfast IRA members blamed the leadership for their humiliation. They had sold off the movement’s weapons stockpiles. A belligerent statement issued by Cathal Goulding on 19th August did nothing to assuage the anger of a layer of IRA volunteers. This claimed that IRA units had been mobilised and were now active all over the North. It impressed no-one, generally being dismissed for what it was – a piece of empty propaganda.
The Southern leadership did mobilise four Active Service Units in the South and sent them to the border. However, they quickly and correctly realised that armed raids into the North would merely incite further pogroms and that Catholics would be defenceless if this should happen. So apart from one incident, a failed attempt to blow up a police station, nothing was done.
By the end of August 1969, a group of Belfast IRA dissidents were holding meetings, discussing the lessons of their failure of a few weeks before and coming to the conclusion that the existing leadership was incapable of revitalising the republican movement. These included a layer of old republicans such as Billy McKee (who had been replaced by Billy McMillen as Belfast Officer Commanding in 1963) and Joe Cahill, plus some younger volunteers like Gerry Adams, one of the few youth who had joined the movement at the time of the Easter Rising commemoration in 1966.
These people based themselves on the traditional ideas of republicanism – nationalism and militarism. They represented the ideas which had been tested and failed in the past, most recently during the Border Campaign. The swing to the left in the republican movement in the 1960s had taken place partly due to the exposure of the bankruptcy of these ideas and methods. Unfortunately, however, this leftward trend was ensnared in the false ideas of Stalinism and these ideas contributed to the set-back suffered in the pogroms of August 1969. The result was a throwing back of consciousness, and wide layers of youth drew the conclusion from the events of August 1969 that the taking up of guns was the only way to fight back. The lessons learned in the 1950s and early 1960s would have to be re-learned, only this time much more painfully.
In September, the dissidents mounted a direct challenge to the leadership. Twenty-one armed IRA men burst into a room in Cyprus Street in the Lower Falls where Billy McMillen was holding a meeting and demanded his resignation. Billy McKee, speaking for the dissidents, declared to McMillen: “you are a Dublin communist and we are voting you out. You are no longer our leader” (Dirty War, pp12-13).
An immediate division was averted through a meeting arranged by Goulding in Dundalk, at which both factions agreed to unite to obtain arms. This was a fragile truce and, especially given the promptings of Fianna Fáil, an open split was only a matter of time.
The catalyst for the eventual split was a completion of a report which had been commissioned at the previous year’s Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (annual conference) on the question of whether or not to participate in the Dublin and Stormont parliaments. This report, which recommended “that all embargoes on political participation in parliament be removed from the constitution and rules”, was due to be presented to an Ard Fheis in January 1970. The report also recommended that the movement participate in a ‘National Liberation Front’ with other ‘left’ groups such as the Communist Party.
An extraordinary General Army Convention of the IRA was held in December 1969 to discuss the business of the Ard Fheis. This meeting voted by 39 to 12 to support the ending of the policy of refusing to take up seats in the Northern or Southern parliaments, known as ‘abstentionism’. This decision meant an irrevocable split in the IRA and not long after, on 29th December, a first statement appeared from the ‘Provisional Army Council’.
On 10th January 1970, 251 Sinn Féin delegates met in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin. A split was by now unavoidable in Sinn Féin too. In fact, the opposition had already booked an alternative venue for a meeting of their own in anticipation of a walkout. When it came to the voting on the crucial proposal to drop abstentionism, those in support failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority. Even so, the split which in reality had already taken place was not averted. Denis Cassin, a delegate from Armagh, rose to move a motion of confidence in the IRA leadership, a motion which required only a simple majority. This was taken by the opposition as the signal to stage their walkout. Seán Mac Stíofáin, a leading dissident from the South, went to the microphone and announced that Cathal Goulding no longer represented the IRA. Almost a third of the delegates then withdrew to hold their own meeting.
The newly founded Provisionals published two newspapers, An Phoblacht based in Dublin, and a Northern publication, Republican News. The following are the reasons given by An Phoblacht to explain the January 1970 walkout:
“1. Recognition of Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House.
- Extreme socialism leading to dictatorship.
- Internal methods being used in the movement.
- Failure to give maximum possible defence in Belfast and other Northern centres in August 1969.
- Campaign to retain Stormont instead of seeking it abolition.”
The first issue of Republican News (June 1970) made much of the ‘left’ political leanings of the old leadership in explaining the split:
“Commemoration ceremonies were availed of to preach political objectives under the guise of Connolly’s socialism but which were more akin to the communistic aims of Chairman Mao Tze Tung.
“Gradually into executive positions, both in the IRA and Sinn Fein, the Red Agents infiltrated and soon these men became the policymakers. Young men and girls were brainwashed with the teachings and propaganda of the new policymakers and well trained organisers were sent into different areas to spread the teachings of these Red Infiltrators”.
The 1970 split in republicanism did not seem of fundamental importance to most people at the time. It was a split in a movement which had been almost completely side-lined by the turmoil of the previous year and a half. In any case, the real basis of the split was unclear. It was not understood by the mass of Catholics, who paid scant attention to the internal developments and problems of republicanism. It was not even clear to many sections of the republican movement itself. Among republicans in Belfast, the source of the division was the events of the previous August in that city. There, the majority of the IRA sided with the Provisionals. In Derry, Sean Keenan joined the breakaway. Elsewhere in the North, most of the organisation were unsure and so, in the main, stayed in the old movement. The political differences in method were was not, at this stage, firmly established. On the one side, the existing leadership tended away from traditional republicanism towards a policy of, in practice, acceptance of the Northern state, working for reform within it while paying lip service to socialism and eventual re-unification. On the other side, the Provisionals tended towards right-wing nationalism and a heavier reliance on military methods.
But these were tendencies which would only become more firmly established on the basis of future events. The lines of difference were still blurred at this stage. Among the old leadership, Stalinist ideas had always been intermingled with nationalism. Conversely, the nationalists who became the Provisionals had to take account of the radicalised mood of the Catholic population among whom they were seeking to build a base. So An Phoblacht hedged its sectarianism with a verbal radicalism, at times putting forward a semi-socialist position while in the same breath denouncing the “socialist” aims of its rival. The November 1970 issue of this journal, for example, called for “the nationalisation of the monetary system, commercial banks and insurance companies, key industries, mines, building land and fishing rights, the division of large estates, an upper limit on the amount of land to owned by any one individual, the setting up of worker-owner co-operatives on a wide scale in industry, agriculture, fishing and distribution – but still leaving ample room for private initiative under state supervision”.
On the issue of the civil rights campaign, there was in reality no fundamental difference. An Phoblacht’s analysis of the civil rights campaign merely re-parroted what the United Irishman had been and was saying. In its view, the success of NICRA was due to “the broadly-based platform on which it was established. Any attempt, such as we saw at the recent conference of NICRA, to take it over by extreme socialist elements, must be seen as undesirable since it would narrow its base and considerably lessen its chance of success” (March 1970).
Even on the issue of defence, the differences were not fully or immediately apparent. Jim Sullivan, representing the views of the existing leadership, had compromised on the removal of barricades, had gone to great lengths to sell the ‘reforms’ of the British government to the population of ‘Free Belfast’ and had welcomed the RUC back into this area. But so too had his Derry counterpart Sean Keenan, chairman of the Derry Defence Association and soon to be prominently associated with the Provisionals in that city.
The split in republicanism was not prompted by success, but by failure and isolation. There was no immediate turn to the IRA after the August pogroms – the five to ten new recruits each month were an important trickle, not a flood. To the mass of Catholics, the IRA remained an irrelevance, to use Danny Morrison’s description of another time, still “something out of the history books”.
Was the subsequent growth of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) into a powerful organisation, capable of a sustained military campaign, inevitable given the August events and all that had led up to them? Most historians, writing from the comfort of hindsight, answer yes. The truth is much more complex. The events of August 1969 changed the situation, tipping the scales of history away from the labour movement. A situation favourable for the advancement of class unity and the cause of socialism became unfavourable – the balance of events was tilted in favour of the various forces and agencies of sectarian division.
It was a defeat, but not a final defeat. The workers’ organisations were still intact. The ability of workers to resist sectarianism had been shown, even at the high point of the sectarian violence in August. The labour movement still had the capacity to recover from this defeat and to do so in time to cut across sectarianism and to prevent any substantial turn to the Provisional IRA by providing an alternative avenue of struggle.
This would only be possible if the mistakes of the past period, mistakes which had resulted in the labour movement surrendering the initiative to sectarian forces, were corrected and if a resolute struggle to regain the initiative was conducted. If this was not done then, under the circumstances created by the August events, the growth of both the PIRA and of loyalist paramilitaries and the disaster of intense sectarian conflict were indeed inevitable. It is in this sense that the intense events of a few days in August- the barricades, the pogroms, and the entry of the troops – were a turning point in the history of the state.