The real lessons of the civil rights movement

Student sit-down in Donegall Square East, Belfast, N.Ireland, as part of the civil rights campaign. Copyright Image from Victor Patterson,

A public row has erupted since Sinn Féin National Chairman Declan Kearney claimed, in a series of newspaper articles in early February, that republican activists played the pre-eminent role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He has been challenged by prominent members of the SDLP such as Alban Maginness and Bríd Rodgers, and by left civil rights activists Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey. The history of the civil rights movement matters, and has lessons for today.

It is half a century since the few brief months in 1968 and 1969 when Northern Ireland changed forever. A chain of events mobilised tens of thousands in a mass movement which challenged the Unionist government and briefly posed the possibility of a revolutionary transformation of society. Young people in particular rejected the old ways of doing things, not just the misrule of the Unionist Party but also the deadening conservatism of the equally sectarian Nationalist Party. Many turned to the left and the ideas of socialism, seeking a way forward in the struggle for civil rights, against sectarianism, and for a better life free from poverty and unemployment.

Republican movement marginalised

It is very important for the republican movement to claim a central role in the civil rights movement, and to claim that the offensive military campaign that it launched from 1970 onwards was inevitable and justified. Unfortunately for republicanism, history is not on their side.
Prominent republicans were certainly involved in the launch of the Civil Rights Association in 1967, and were present at all of the key events thereafter. There were many others involved, however, from a range of political backgrounds. It is also important to consider why republicans went down this road. In fact, the involvement of republicans in the movement arose from the defeat of the 1956-1962 Border Campaign which had left republicanism demoralised and directionless. The idea that an armed campaign would ever reverse partition was seemingly dead. Few young people looked to the republican movement as a force capable of changing society.

Negative influence of Stalinism

The republican movement reorganised and came more and more under the influence of individuals who were either members of or closely associated with the Communist Party (CP). The idea that change in Ireland would only come about in two stages – first, erase the border by building a broad movement of all those opposed to partition, and only then fight for socialist change – was adopted by the leadership under the influence of Stalinist ideas.
This Stalinist position meant that the CP members and republicans in NICRA argued for “unity” with Catholic businessmen and right-wing nationalists – the same individuals who would go on to found the SDLP – in order to achieve reforms. Any mention of socialism was ruled out in order to maintain this broad unity. This approach narrowed the base of the movement disastrously, converting it from one which could draw on support from the entire working class – by combining opposition to sectarian discrimination with socialist policies to challenge poverty in all communities – into one which could only find an echo among Catholics.

Global revolt radicalises youth

All this at a time when international events were having a profound effect in the North. From the late 1950s, the black civil rights movement convulsed the United States and, in the “long hot summer of 1967”, riots tore dozens of cities apart as the downtrodden rose up in revolt. The year of 1968 was dominated above all by the May “evenements” in France. A general strike of ten million workers demonstrated the tremendous power of the working class and President de Gaulle fled the country, openly voicing his fear that the game was up for capitalism.

Labour movement leaders fail to seize opportunity

Young people were moving to the left at the same time that the majority of civil rights leaders were desperate to maintain a united front with right-wing, Catholic businessmen. There was a real opportunity for profound, positive change but this opportunity was squandered. The leadership of the trade unions, the Northern Ireland Labour Party and other left forces could have provided an alternative strategy and built a movement which took up class issues and drew support from both Catholic and Protestant working-class people. These forces had a mass base and huge authority in both Protestant and Catholic working-class communities. Had they placed the workers’ movement at the head of the fight for civil rights and put forward a programme for socialist change, it would have gained a massive response. They did not rise to the challenge. Instead, the sectarian forces were able to fill the vacuum. Tension mounted, violence exploded on to the streets in August 1969, and troops were deployed in Derry and Belfast.
It seemed to young Catholics that there was no way forward. Many of the generation of Catholic youth who had come behind the civil rights movement went on to join republican paramilitary groups. By early 1971, the Provisional IRA were engaged in the offensive campaign which was to last for a generation.

Socialists hold the line

The handful of socialist activists who were organised in the Militant group, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in Ireland, kept their bearings at this time. Militant took a clear and independent class position from the first. The headline of the September 1969 issue of the Militant newspaper demanded the withdrawal of the troops and called for an armed, trade union defence force to protect all workers. An article analysing the situation warned: “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”. The call for a trade union defence force was not an abstract slogan, removed from the reality of the time. The actions of working-class people had prevented violence spreading in August 1969 and an organised trade union defence force would have formalised, solidified and strengthened this instinctive reaction. It would have allowed both central co-ordination and democratic structures to be put in place.

IRA campaign a dead end

Most IRA volunteers believed they were fighting for a socialist, united Ireland. They were motivated by the conditions they lived in – in reaction to sectarian discrimination, endemic poverty and chronic unemployment. They were angry about the vicious repression meted out by the state. They wanted to hit back and they could see no other way in which to do so. Many on the left were politically disorientated and confused by events, and lent their support, to one degree or another, to the Provisionals. Only Militant argued from the outset that the IRA’s strategy was a dead end, which had no possibility of defeating the British state and would only waste the energy and lives of thousands of young Catholics and deepen sectarian division. The IRA campaign inevitably failed in its objectives.

Lessons for today

Now, the peace process has failed to deliver for working-class and young people, whatever their background. It has failed to overcome the underlying causes of conflict because, under capitalism, genuine peace and real economic advancement for working people are not possible. Instead, sectarian forces with a vested interest in maintaining division have solidified their dominance and, in some ways, our communities are more divided than ever.
Today, although sectarian parties seem to be absolutely dominant, very many workers and young people are consciously anti-sectarian and detest the Orange and Green establishment. There is anger against the Stormont parties’ role in implementing austerity and a brewing revolt against their conservative positions on marriage equality and abortion rights. Important layers are again being radicalised by events outside Northern Ireland, like the rise of Corbyn in Britain, which has put discussion about socialism back on the agenda. Those workers and young people seeking the challenge the status quo will gain by learning from the history of the 1960s, when society could have moved in a very different direction.

By Ciaran Mulholland

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