To answer this question it is necessary to see beyond immediate events, to the origins and real causes of the violence. To see whether the sectarian division which keeps Catholic and Protestant working class people apart will disappear, it is necessary to understand how this division came about, and why it flared up in the way it did twenty five years ago.
This booklet has been produced to provide answers to these questions. Whereas most of what has been written about Northern Ireland presents the problem either from a unionist or nationalist view, or else as a meaningless squabble about religion, this work explains the situation in class terms.
It explains why Ireland was partitioned, why the civil rights movement developed in the late 1960s, why this gave way to sectarian pogroms in August 1969, why the troops were sent in, why the Provisional IRA began to grow and why their campaign attracted the support of Catholic working class youth, why the loyalist paramilitaries began to reply with random assassinations of Catholics, why the Troubles proved insoluble over more than two decades, and finally why the recent dramatic turn of events have occurred and what this means for the future.
It argues that whatever deal is worked out between the main political parties and the London and Dublin governments, will not solve the fundamental problems.
The fact that sectarian politicians may reach ‘a temporary compromise with each other will not eradicate the division which separates the working class communities. Nor will it bring jobs, or adequate services to these areas, despite all the claims being made about an economic ‘peace dividend’. But it does provide an opening for the labour movement and the working class to throw up new organisations, put forward new ideas and find new methods of struggle. The possibility now exists for a new political movement to be built which can unite the working class and especially the youth, against sectarianism and against capitalism.
For this to be done successfully the pitfalls and mistakes – made by the working class movement in the past, which helped open the way to the Troubles, need to be analysed and understood. So also do the reasons why the labour movement was never able to decisively cut across the sectarian reaction of the last twenty five years.
This booklet examines these questions and provides the answers. It is essential reading for all who want to understand the Northern Ireland Troubles, how they arose and most important of all, how they can be permanently ended.
BRITISH GOVERNMENT ministers today like to parade themselves as the voice of ‘reasonableness’, ‘moderation’ and ‘democracy’ in the ‘senseless’ conflict between the two religious communities in Northern Ireland.
In adopting this ‘benign’ posture they conveniently forget that it was their ancestors, the rulers of Britain in previous centuries, who deliberately whipped up sectarian rivalries in order to help them keep control of this, their oldest and closest colony. It was the British ruling class who laid the seeds of the present troubles and who bear the first responsibility for the bloodshed and the suffering of the last twenty-five years.
George III, British monarch from 1760 -1820, revealed one of the main aspects of British colonial policy when he said; “If you want to baste an Irishman you can easily get an Irishman to turn the spit”. (1)
In simpler and more modern language this can be condensed into three words, ‘Divide and Rule’. When, during George III’ s reign, the United Irishmen rose in the rebellion of 1798 and united ‘Protestant, Catholic and dissenter’ into a force which threatened Britain’s hold, divide and rule was part of the answer of the colonial administration.
Before the rising, General Knox, the commander of the British garrison in Dungannon, wrote the following to his superior officer, General Lake; “I have arranged to increase the animosity between Orangemen and the United Irish. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North.” (2)
Ninety years later land agitation threatened the position of the landlord class in Ireland. In 1886, the Liberal government of Gladstone introduced a Home Rule Bill. Substantial sections of the British establishment, including the absentee landlords who collected rents from Irish tenants and lived in luxury in England, feared Home Rule would lead to their overthrow.
Their opposition included again the tactic of divide and rule, to stir up opposition in Ireland. Lord Randolph Churchill, then an independent Tory MP, visited the north of Ireland and it was he, speaking at a rally in Lame, who coined what would become a much used slogan of Ulster Unionism; ” Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”. In a private letter to the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Churchill explained plainly what he was up to: “I decided some time ago that if the G.O.M. (Gladstone) went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God it may turn out the ace of trumps and not the two”. (3)
Early this century the British capitalist class faced the greatest ever threat to their interests in Ireland. This did not come primarily from nationalist leaders but from the rise of a powerful and militant working class movement which had the capacity to put itself at the head of the national struggle and lead a fight, not just for independence but also for the overthrow of capitalism.
The years after the first world war brought about an explosion of the class struggle throughout Ireland. There were land and factory occupations, strikes and general strikes. In the background loomed the shadow of the Russian revolution of 1917which at this time, before the rise of Stalin, was an inspiration to workers worldwide. Talk of setting up soviets in Ireland was commonplace, the red flag was carried in demonstrations and flown over occupied buildings.
Even Labour leaders who would ultimately stand on the right of the movement, were infected by the mood and forced, at least in part, to voice what workers were saying. William O’Brien, an influential figure who would end up firmly on the right of the Irish labour movement, used his presidential address to the 1918 Congress of the Irish Transport and General Workers to laud the role of Ireland’s foremost Marxist, James Connolly, arguing that Connolly’s struggle for socialism in Ireland had influenced the “great men and women who had given us the Russian revolution”.
A few weeks later O’Brien, together with other Labour leaders, addressed a meeting in Dublin’ s Mansion House in which he declared that while Sinn Fein were out for a ‘republic’, Labour were for a “workers’ republic”! It was not uncommon at the time to hear such leaders hail the Bolsheviks and speak of the need for a ‘soviet type government’ at home.
The mainly Protestant north east of Ireland was infected by the rise in militancy bath in Ireland and Britain. In January 1919, Belfast engineering workers began an all out strike for shorter hours. The strike lasted four weeks and spread to other workplaces. Catholics and Protestants were united in this battle. The strike was defeated but the class unity demonstrated during it was maintained. 100,000 took part in that year’s May Day march where the theme was ‘internationalism’. One resolution unanimously passed at the huge rally in Belfast’s Ormeau Park declared solidarity ‘without reservation of either creed or colour …with the workers of all lands…in renewed hope of a new earth.” (4)
It was against the background of such events that the newly formed Irish Republican Army launched a guerrilla campaign to win independence. For the British ruling class, the IRA and their rapidly growing political counterpart, Sinn Fein, were not the main problem. The main threat came from the rising militancy and growing unity of the working class, north and south, Catholic and Protestant. They feared that independence would lead to socialist revolution in Ireland, which would then spread to Britain.
Once again they resorted to the tried and tested tactic of divide and rule. In 1920 a Government of Ireland Act was passed at Westminster. This 1 proposed the partition of Ireland and the creation of a state based on six of the original nine counties of Ulster and which had a Protestant majority but also a significant Catholic minority of about one third of the population.
Echoing the words of General Knox 120 years earlier, Tory leader Bonar Law wrote to Prime Minister Lloyd George advising that Britain should underwrite the northern state and go along with Unionist demands for a new, armed, ‘unionist’ police force. “We cannot afford to have everyone in Ireland against us, and I think the time has come when we ought to make special arrangements to let the loyalists in Ulster be in a position to preserve order there.” (5)
Two Sectarian States
Partition succeeded in its main purpose of dividing the working class and derailing the socialist movement. The formation of the new northern state was accompanied by an offensive against the unity of the working class and against the forces of labour.
In the first years of the new state, thousands of workers were expelled from their jobs and driven from their homes. Behind the cover of these anti-Catholic pogroms, socialists, Labour Party members and trade union activists were targeted. One in four of those forced out of their jobs were in fact Protestants, the bulk of them activists in the 1919 strike.
Partition created not one, but two, poverty ridden, repressive and sectarian states. The new state in the south, where unemployment was over 100,000, consolidated itself by military repression. The Catholic Church became one of its main pillars, much of Catholic social teaching eventually becoming law.
Unionism maintained its grip over the north, where 70,000, or 24% of the workforce, were out of work, by repression and by blatant discrimination against the Catholic minority. Electoral boundaries were crudely ‘gerrymandered’, i.e. manipulated, so that even areas with big Catholic majorities remained in Protestant (i.e. unionist) hands. In 1922 the secretary of the Tyrone Unionist Association wrote to his Fermanagh counterpart: “I suppose you are engaged in a scheme to make Fermanagh safe… [I am] gerrymandering at night… it is the hardest job I ever undertook… We have a big nationalist majority against us.” (6)
The British capitalists had solved their immediate problem, but at the cost of creating a potentially much greater problem which capitalism would never be able to resolve.
Any idea of re-unifying Ireland on a capitalist basis – that is merging two poverty ridden states into one – would be bound to provoke armed resistance from the million northern Protestants. They would never peacefully allow themselves to be put in a situation where they would end up as the discriminated against minority.
On the other hand the Catholic working class of the northern state, sentenced to a future of permanent mass unemployment and poverty under capitalism, could not be fully incorporated into this state, especially given the discrimination and repression they suffered.
So, despite the hand wringing and moralising of its present day representatives, it was the British ruling class who prepared the ingredients for the violence of the last quarter century. They created a problem which on a capitalist basis, quite simply has no solution.
DID PARTITION mean, as is often argued, that the violence of the Troubles was inevitable? Was the North, from that time, set on a slow burning fuse which, after 50 years, was certain to ignite into sectarian bloodshed?
The answer is no. Even partition itself was not unavoidable. The fact that the British ruling class used the tactic of divide and rule did not mean that this weapon was bound to succeed. During the nineteenth century there was an uneven development of the Irish economy. While the south stagnated, the north-east developed a powerful industrial base through textiles, shipbuilding and engineering.
The owners of these industries, together with the local landed aristocracy considered themselves an integral part of the British ruling class. They provided the local leadership of the Unionists.
The largely Protestant workforce of these industries could have gone either way in the pre-partition period. They were instinctively opposed to the capitalist and reactionary leaders of unionism, the people who were their exploiters week in and week out. But they saw nothing to benefit them in the programme of Sinn Fein for a capitalist independent Ireland. Rather they feared that protectionist measures would close their industries.
If the trade union and Labour leaders in Ireland had opted to fight independently for a socialist Ireland, and for unity with the British working class in their struggle for socialism in Britain, the fears of Protestant workers could have been allayed and the working class united. As it was, despite their earlier socialist rhetoric, leaders like O’Brien decided not to contest the 1918 general election so as to leave the field clear for Sinn Fein. From that moment they look no independent position in the national struggle but instead gave support and assistance to Sinn Fein. They said, first let Sinn Fein win independence and only then will the Labour movement put forward ifs social programme.
This allowed the Unionist bosses to prey on the doubts and anxieties of Protestant workers and gave the British ruling class the opportunity to successfully wield the weapon of divide and rule and impose partition.
The working class had the power to prevent partition and the sectarian pogroms of the early 1920s. What they lacked was a leadership committed to building a socialist alternative. Likewise, during the fifty year history of the northern state until the start of the Troubles, the working class had many opportunities to unite and mount an offensive to defeat their sectarian enemies.
Throughout this time the Unionist leaders regularly spoke in alarmed tones about the threat from nationalists and republicans to their state. The aim was to create a siege mentality among Protestants to prevent social and class issues coming to the surface. The truth was that no threat, as described by unionists, actually existed.
Articles 2 and 3 of the southern Irish constitution, in force since 1937, claimed the right of the southern parliament to rule the whole country. Although denounced by unionists ever since, these Articles have been no more than window dressing. The southern Irish ruling class, the ranchers and business interests who took charge of the new state, while they have paid lip service to the idea of reunification, have had neither the intention or even the desire to bring it about.
They have had enough trouble keeping the population at home in check without adding one million hostile Protestants to their worries. From time to time southern politicians have launched verbal crusades against partition – but mainly to divert attention from the unemployment and poverty under their own noses in Dublin and elsewhere.
True, in the North there were nationalists who consistently won seats in rural areas. But they were a weak and ineffective opposition to Unionism, sometimes taking part in the northern parliament, sometimes abstaining. In its entire existence the Nationalist Party, under its various guises and titles, succeeded in getting only one piece of legislation passed in the northern parliament -the Wild Birds Act of 1931!
Far from feeling under the ‘threat’ of the nationalists, the unionists were glad to maintain them as a ‘pet’ opposition. If Catholics voted for nationalists and Protestants for unionists the unionist majority was permanently secure. In 1929, Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, made clear that he preferred parliament to be made up of “men who are for the union on the one hand or who are against it and want to go into a Dublin parliament on the other”. (7)
The idea of a military threat from the IRA was no less a myth, a myth from time to time invoked by Unionists to scare Protestants into voting for them.
By the late 1920s the remnants of the IRA were militarily defeated and reduced to a small and declining group in the south. They would never again become a force in the southern state.
They had no real basis in the North either. Not until the late 1930s did they attempt a serious campaign against partition. Launched in 1938, this took the form of arms raids and other sporadic activity in the North and a bombing campaign in Britain.
A bomb in Coventry in August 1939, which killed five and injured fifty, followed a few weeks later by Britain’s entry into the second world war, effectively ended the English campaign. Activity in the North had simply petered out a year or so later. The Unionists’ response, which was to intern suspected republicans, was to continue until the end of the war.
After more than a decade of virtual inactivity a revamped IRA launched a new campaign in 1956. This was begun with ‘flying column’ style raids across the border but it was easily contained by the state. It became known as the border campaign because virtually all of the activity took place in the rural border areas. Military actions soon tailed off, and in 1962, the IRA leadership accepted reality and called it off. In total there had been 500 incidents. 18 people had been killed – there have been single incidents in the recent, and more bloody, troubles where the death toll has been as high.
The real threat to unionism, and to right wing nationalism, was that the working class would unite in social and political struggle. Only if politics were counted in terms of religion did unionism command a majority. In terms of class, the working class were – and still are – the majority and the most powerful force in society. Discrimination against Catholics and against working class Protestants was always the policy of unionism. As Belfast trade unionist and ‘socialist’ Paddy Devlin states in his autobiography ‘Straight Left’; “The appalling discrimination practiced by the unionists against Catholics was as nothing compared to their class bias, for the ordinary working class Protestants were only a little better treated than their Catholic counterparts.” (8)
Despite the setback of partition the labour movement began quickly to regroup and recover in the North. Discontent at the terrible social conditions endured by workers resulted in three Labour candidates being elected to Stormont in 1925. The unionist response was to abolish Proportional Representation so as to ensure sectarian voting and try to keep Labour out.
Right up until the civil rights explosion in the late 1960s, the unionists maintained a property qualification for voting in local government elections. If you did not pay rates you had no vote. On the other hand if you were a businessman who paid rates for a number of business premises you got one vote for each. A quarter of a million potential voters, an estimated 60% of them Protestant, were disqualified by this unjust procedure. It was Labour, not unionism or indeed nationalism, who lost out.
No amount of unionist obstruction could quell the class struggle or prevent the powerful tendency for Catholic and Protestant workers to unite.
October 1932 provided an outstanding example of the class unity, militancy and determination that was also seen in countless lesser battles. Unemployed workers who were denied benefit were forced to apply to Poor Law Guardians, an outmoded nineteenth century institution dominated by unionists, for work on Outdoor Relief Schemes. In return those chosen were paid a pittance.
In October 1932 the Outdoor Relief workers went on strike. Although only directly involving a small number of people, the issue touched thousands and there were mass demonstrations of Catholics and Protestants in their support.
State repression led to rioting and at one point workers in the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill Road areas of Belfast jointly defended these areas against the notorious B Specials, the entirely Protestant police reserve. Two workers, one a Protestant the other a Catholic, were killed. The working class of Belfast responded magnificently, over 100,000 lining the streets for their funerals. At this point the government were forced to intervene and press the Poor Law Guardians to grant concessions.
During the second World War another powerful industrial movement look place. In 1942 a dispute began in the recently established Shorts aircraft factory in Belfast, spread to other factories, and was won.
Two years later a more bitter dispute look place. 20,000 engineering workers came out for higher wages. When the government jailed five strike leaders accusing them of sabotaging the war effort, other workers began to come out in support. A general strike was only averted when an appeal quickly led to all five being released.
Industrial unity was matched by political unity. The Northern Ireland Labour Party won two seats in the 1945 election to the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont. Its 66,000 votes represented a significant inroad into the unionist vote. The Westminster elections of that year, and the local elections of the following year, also saw significant Labour advances.
Profound changes took place during the 1950s and 1960s. These strengthened the labour movement and cemented a growing unity between Catholic and Protestant workers. By the late 1960s the conditions were ripe for a socialist movement which could have toppled unionism.
Part of the change took place in the South. By the late 1950s the Irish capitalists were forced to recognise that their attempt to build a strong economy using protectionist measures to keep out foreign goods and preserve the Irish market for Irish products, was a failure.
The 1950s and 1960s were decades of economic boom for the main capitalist countries. Protectionist policies only ensured that Irish capitalism largely missed out on the first part of this boom. The economy was little more than stagnant in the ’50s, there was chronic unemployment and 400,000 people were forced to emigrate seeking work.
Between 1954 and 1957 the Irish Labour Party participated in a coalition government, with the right wing Fine Gael, which presided over this disastrous economic situation. Then in 1957 the supposedly more ‘republican’ of the political parties in the South, Fianna Fail, came to power. They set about dropping protectionism, beginning by opening a free trade zone in Shannon, County Clare, where foreign companies could set up and export without tariffs. In 1965 the Irish and British governments signed a free trade agreement which effectively opened up the whole Irish market to British goods and to British companies.
These developments were an important factor in bringing about a – change in the attitude of the British ruling class to Ireland. The reasons which, from their point of view, made partition necessary in 1920 no longer applied. The economic boom meant that the strikes and big social movements of the pre-partition days were not an immediate prospect. The military/strategic reasons for partition and the 1921 Treaty with the South had long gone. In the epoch of long range nuclear submarines the issue of access to Irish ports was unimportant. In any case Britain was a declining military power.
Industry was no longer concentrated in the North. Rather free trade increased the economic importance of the South- by 1969 it was the fifth biggest market for British companies.
By this time the British ruling class would have preferred to with- draw from Northern Ireland. They favoured an end to partition and the creation of a united capitalist Ireland which they could dominate by economic, not by direct political or military means. This has been their preferred option ever since. The problem, from their point of view was that the sectarian divisions they had helped whip up presented them with an insurmountable obstacle. The sectarian state in the North could not be dismantled without provoking Protestant resistance and civil war.
Checkmated in this way by their own past crimes in Ireland, the British ruling class might aspire to rid themselves of the North, but their every attempt to turn this aspiration into reality, would flounder on the rock of Protestant resistance.
Important changes also look place in the North. When the post war Labour government introduced the foundations of a welfare state, including a free health service, the Unionists had no choice but to reluctantly follow suit. Education reform, which opened the way to higher education to young people including Catholics from working class homes, was to have an important effect in producing a new layer of radical youth in the 1960s who would not accept the status quo. A policy of grants to attract foreign industry did have a certain effect in drawing in new companies.
But for the mass of people these changes only scratched the surface. Poverty, unemployment, discrimination and injustice remained as pillars of the state. The full effects of the post-war economic boom were never felt in Northern Ireland. Mirroring what was happening south of the border 100,000 people, some 7% of the total population, were forced to emigrate. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a sharp economic down-turn with massive redundancies, especially in the shipbuilding industry, the former pride and joy of Northern Ireland industry. Unemployment rose to 10% at the end of the ’50s.
In 1962 the unionist Prime Minister, Brookeborough, who had been in charge since the second world war was replaced by another landowning aristocrat, Captain Terence O’Neill. O’Neill was supposed to be the liberal, reforming face of unionism.
O’Neill promised changes but delivered nothing. The discrimination stayed, the gerrymandering of elections stayed, the property qualification for voting stayed. So did the B Specials, the repressive Special Powers Act and the Test of the anti-Catholic and anti-labour measures introduced since 1920.
At the top it was a question of more of the same but at the bottom, things were changing, old sectarian divisions were becoming blurred and in some cases breaking down. New housing estates tended to be mixed; the new foreign companies had no interest in continuing the Protestants-only policy of many local employers. The main tendency of the time was towards greater integration of the two communities.
This meant a falling away of support for the extremes of unionism and nationalism. The IRA’ s border campaign was met with indifference in the Catholic working class areas of Belfast and Derry. When it ended, the IRA no longer existed as a force. The remnants of the organisation shifted to the left, influenced by the Communist Party, and concluded correctly that such military campaigns could not succeed. In the unionist camp the Reverend Ian Paisley began his evangelical and political crusade in these years, campaigning on such issues as the ‘Romeward’ trend of the Protestant Church of Ireland. Most Protestants saw him as a crank.
In 1966 a small group of Protestants met in a bar in Belfast’ s Shankill Road and decided to launch the Ulster Volunteer Force, borrowing the name from the paramilitary force created by unionists earlier in the century to resist Home Rule. In a brief ‘campaign’ they killed two Catholics and an elderly Protestant woman. Protestants and Catholics alike were outraged and when it was banned by the state and its leaders were arrested, this UVF disappeared.
These organisations and individuals were viewed by the mass of people as anachronisms who were fighting old sectarian battles hardly relevant any longer. It was to social and class issues which the majority of people were turning their attentions.
Northern Ireland Labour Party
In 1958 the NILP won four Belfast seats to the Northern Ireland (Stormont) parliament. As recession and redundancies hit home, the trade unions stepped up their support for Labour and in the next Stormont election the same four MPs were returned, all with increased majorities.
Politics, especially in Belfast, was becoming a close run thing between Labour and the Unionists. In 1962 the NILP polled 62,175 votes in Belfast, not far short of the Unionist total of 67,350. Overall the NILP together won 26% of the vote in this election. If the votes of other smaller Labour groupings are included, the total Labour vote was 32.8%.
There were similar successes in future elections, to Westminster in 1964 and 1966 and Stormont in 1965, although disillusionment with the policies of the right wing Labour govemment of Harold Wilson, elected in Britain in 1964, did cut across the growth of the NILP to some extent.
The NILP itself had a right wing leadership. On the issue of partition it accepted more of a unionist than a socialist position. Nonetheless, the growing radicalisation of society drew a new layer to the party and it began to shift to the left.
In 1966 the party broke historic ground when, together with the local trade union leadership, it sent a delegation to meet the Stormont government and present them with demands for an end to religious discrimination and reform of the voting system. The Unionists simply said no.
In the South a similar leftward shift was taking place. The Irish Labour Party benefiting from being out of government for eight years, won 22 seats in the 1965 general election, its best performance since 1927.
1968 was the eve of the current Troubles. This year saw the radicalisation of youth across Europe. It witnessed the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France, when 10 million workers went on strike, factories were occupied and youth fought with the police in Paris. It brought youth onto the streets in many countries in opposition to the war in Vietnam and other issues.
Young people in Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, were infected by this new mood of revolt. Meanwhile, among the working class, anger at the Labour government in Britain, who were implementing policies dictated by British capitalism, resulted in a new mood of militancy on the shop floor and a new wave of strikes.
The sectarian conflict which was to follow was certainly not inevitable. On the contrary the cards, at this moment, were stacked against the bigots. The initiative rested with the working class, with the trade unions and with Labour.
ON 24 AUGUST 1968 the first civil rights march set out from the small town of Coalisland in Mid-Ulster, to Dungannon some five miles away. It was organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), a body set up in 1967 partly under the inspiration of the movement for black civil rights in the USA.
Protestants and Catholics took part in this first demonstration which was non-sectarian in character. Many of the marchers, and the platform speakers, were labour movement activists.
Although banned from the centre of Dungannon, the march passed off peacefully. Not so a demonstration held a few weeks later, on 5 October, in Derry. This was banned by the Unionist government and the few hundred who turned out to defy the ban, found themselves sandwiched between lines of baton wielding policemen and were ruthlessly beaten.
That night the television news showed pictures of the police attacking the marchers. The shock and anger this created turned the civil rights campaign into a mass movement. A second demonstration in Derry on 16 November attracted, not a few hundred, but 15,000. It was banned from entering the centre of Derry but the size of the crowd meant that the police were powerless to implement the ban.
Among the Catholic working class and youth the civil rights campaign had almost total support. They saw it not just as a battle against discrimination but a struggle for jobs, decent houses and a decent future.
Many Protestant youth also gave their support, seeing this as a struggle against an oppressive state. The Protestant working class adopted a wait and see attitude – they too were hostile to a Unionist Party which represented the rich, but they were unsure about the nature of this Civil Rights Movement.
While Catholics had always been treated as second class citizens within the state, Protestants too suffered from unemployment, poor wages, and in particular, poor housing. 79% of the homes on the Shankill Road had no inside toilet. 81% had no hot water. Tens of thousands of Protestant workers, because they did not own their own homes and pay rates, were denied the right to vote by the class discrimination of the government.
If the civil rights campaign had taken up these issues it could have found a road to the Protestant working class. The best people to make this appeal were the trade union and Labour leaders who already had the support of thousands of Protestant workers. If trade union and Labour banners were to the fore in the civil rights marches it would have made it difficult for the Unionists to portray this as just a Catholic movement.
Instead the right wing NILP and trade union leadership chose to opt out. They had supported the idea of civil rights when it was just a matter of a delegation to Stormont to chat with Unionist ministers. Now that it was a mass movement in physical opposition to the state, they quickly dropped it.
This is the first reason why the civil rights issue came to be regarded with suspicion by Protestants. The second concerns the leadership of the civil rights struggle itself.
‘Moderates’ Take Over
The first civil rights marches were mainly organised by socialists and left wing activists, including the first members of Militant (now the Socialist Party) in Northern Ireland. These people were careful to ensure that the slogans and appeals were non-sectarian, linking the issue of discrimination with class issues which could appeal to both Protestant and Catholic workers.
Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists were the driving force behind the decision to go ahead with this march. The NICRA Executive wanted to call it off. John Hume, soon to be elected to the Stormont Parliament as an Independent on a civil rights programme, refused to back the march.
Yet within a few weeks Hume, and other so-called moderates, had set up a self-appointed ‘Citizen’s Action Committee’ and through this, partly because some left wingers made mistakes and gave way to this new self-appointed leadership, had taken effective control of the Civil Rights Movement in the city. Derry was the eye of the civil rights storm, so this position gave them a key influence in the overall movement.
The first thing that these moderates did was clamp clown on the strikes and spontaneous demonstrations then breaking out almost daily in Derry. They also narrowed the civil rights programme. Civil rights, said Hume, was a struggle which could ‘heal’ class divisions. Socialist ideas, or demands in favour of the working class which might alienate Catholic businessmen, should not be raised.
No placards, no banners and no slogans were permitted on the16 November Derry demonstration, which marched in silence to the city centre. From here on ‘anti-unionist unity’ and not ‘class unity’ was to be the theme. The NICRA Executive, heavily influenced by members of the Communist Party which was arguing for a broad anti-unionist struggle of all classes, echoed the position of Hume.
‘Anti-unionist unity’ was, and still is, nothing more than another term for Catholic unity. In the name of this ‘anti-unionist unity’ any attempt at building a bridge to the Protestant working class was abandoned.
When Protestant workers listened to the speeches of John Hume, ex- Nationalist Party MP Austin Currie, and others like them, all they could hear was a call for more jobs, more houses, better treatment for Catholics. Instead of demanding an end to poverty these people seemed to be saying things would be all right if it was dished out evenly to the two communities.
A special Militant leaflet, drawn up and issued by the handful of Militant members then in Derry, warned; “Demonstrations, divorced from the main body of the labour movement, in support only of limited reforms may alienate some Protestant workers who are suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, and will only be convinced by a movement which can be seen to offer a solution to their problems.” (9)
Militant’ s forces were too small to change the direction of the Civil Rights Movement and this warning went unheeded. Late in 1968 O’Neill announced a limited package of reforms.
These proved too little and too late. Despite support from the NILP and union leaders and despite a call from the new civil rights leaders to halt the demonstrations in order to give the reforms time, the Catholic population were not going to be content with piecemeal change. The marches began again at the beginning of 1969 and continued, with ebbs and flows, through the first half of the year.
From the start of the civil rights campaign Paisley had replied to civil rights demonstrations with counter demonstrations, under the banner of the ‘Ulster Protestant Volunteers’. At first the Protestant opposition was quite small. The Protestant working class mainly concentrated in and around Belfast were still passive onlookers.
But the deliberately narrow appeal of the civil rights leaders made it easy for the Unionists to characterise this as a purely Catholic movement out for Catholics only. Protestant opposition began to harden. By the summer of 1969, as for the first time the turmoil spread to areas of Belfast, tensions were running high and both communities feared that a sectarian backlash was coming. Events in August brought things to a head.
On 12 August, 15,000 Protestant Apprentice Boys marched through Derry. Skirmishes, at first quite minor, between marches and residents of the Catholic Bogside area, escalated to a major confrontation. Police backed up by marchers, attacked the Bogside. Barricades were erected in response and the three day Battle of Bogside was begun. Eventually with its police force overstretched, exhausted and unable to penetrate the wall of stones and petrol bombs which greeted their every attempt to enter the Bogside, the government gave the order to call up the notorious B Specials.
A pogrom which would certainly have provoked a Catholic uprising north and south of the border and which could have led to civil war was on the cards. Under pressure from civil rights leaders among others, the British Labour government sent in troops. On the afternoon of 14 August soldiers took up positions on the edge of the Bogside, much to the relief of those defending the area. It was to be a temporary emergency measure to ‘restore peace’. Troops have been on the streets of Northern Ireland ever since.
That night there was serious fighting in north and west Belfast as Protestants from the Shankill area attacked and burned Catholic streets. Police sent to the Catholic Lower Falls, ‘protected’ residents by opening fire on them with heavy machine guns. The rump of the IRA were unable to provide defence. Five died and hundreds of homes were destroyed in these pogroms.
The next day soldiers took up positions in parts of Belfast and gradually an uneasy calm returned, although barricades stayed up and were to stay in place for weeks.
There was almost universal support for the entry of the troops. People in the Catholic areas welcomed them as a relieving army. The NILP, the Irish Labour Party, and of course, the British Labour Party, whose government sent them, gave support. So did virtually all the civil right leaders including those who later backed the Provisional IRA. Likewise most of the fringe socialist groups in Britain, such as the Socialist Worker Party (then the International Socialists), people who were soon to b cheering on the IRA, supported the government’s decision.
Militant, along with left wing members of the NILP in Derry, found itself virtually alone in opposing. Its September 1969 issue, under headline, ‘Withdraw the Troops’ 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”. (10)
This was the reality. The army were not sent for humanitarian reasons but because of fear of what a civil war might mean for British capitalism. Civil war on its doorstep would destabilise Britain, probably spreading to the huge Irish communities in its cities. Britain would be blamed internationally. British property would be destroyed or seized in Ireland and there would be campaigns to boycott British goods in the United States and other countries with Irish communities.
Their past policy of divide and rule had now caught up with the British ruling class. Although they would have much preferred to with- draw altogether, they found instead that they had no option but to commit themselves to direct military involvement. History was having the last word for the crimes of Randolph Churchill, Bonar Law, Lloyd George and all the others who had chosen to play the ‘orange card’.
The entry of the troops solved nothing. The poverty, the discrimination, the sectarian division -everything which had led to the August ’69 pogroms -remained. Because no capitalist government could solve these things, it was certain that the anger which led to August ’69 would produce new confrontations. The difference would be that the army would be on the streets. Inevitably they would come into conflict with the very people who, it was claimed, they had come to defend.
Would it not still have been justified to support the entry of the army as an emergency measure to prevent civil war? No, the duty of Marxists in a situation such as this is to point to ways in which the working class can rely on its own strength to solve its own problems, not rely on the forces of the capitalist state.
The arrival of soldiers did have a temporary effect in restoring calm to some areas. However across most of the North there was not a soldier to be seen. In most areas peace was kept by non-sectarian defence or peace committees made up of both Catholics and Protestants. Shop stewards in the shipyards took action to prevent the intimidation of Catholics and their example was taken up in many other workplaces.
The outline of a non-sectarian defence force, based on the trade unions and on community activists, existed even during the tierce sectarian fighting of August. This could have been built upon if a clear lead had come from the trade union or NILP leaders. Instead these leaders sup- ported the army and argued that their members should rely on the troops, not on their own strength.
The effect of this mistaken policy was that the defence committees eventually dwindled away. Bodies which could have mobilised Protestant and Catholic workers against sectarianism were gone. Instead there was British Army which could unite no-one and solve nothing.
HE AUGUST 1969 pogroms mark the real beginnings of the Troubles. They delivered a stunning blow to the working class movement. They prepared the way for the formation of new sectarian political and paramilitary forces which would dominate Northern Ireland for more than two decades.
The failure of the tiny IRA to defend Catholic areas of Belfast led to internal crisis and prepared for a split. This was helped on by a section of the southern Irish ruling class around the governing Fianna Fail party. These people were frightened in case what they saw as the socialist inspired protests in the North, would link up with social agitation already taking place on issues such as housing in the South.
Their answer was to apply their own version of the old British tactic of divide and rule. Catholic areas in the North had swung away from nationalism and old style republicanism. Behind the barricades, even after August ’69 it was socialist ideas which were being discussed.
To ‘correct’ this, agents of Fianna Fail bombarded the Catholic areas with propaganda giving their nationalist version of events. They also met secretly with IRA dissidents offering them money to buy arms – but on condition that ‘socialist’ policies be dropped and that there would be no IRA military activity in the South.
At the end of 1969, the IRA split into two wings. The Officials who backed the existing leadership and the dissidents who became known as the Provisionals. The Officials maintained a policy of support for civil rights and piecemeal reform in the North. The Provisionals adopted a more nationalist position, denouncing the ‘Marxism’ and atheism of their rivals who they labelled the ‘National Liberation Front’. The split was publicly confirmed by a Provisional walk out from the Sinn Fein Ard Fhéis (conference) in January 1970. A trickle of new recruits began to join the IRA alter August’ 69. It was the crude methods of the British Army which would turn this trickle into a flood.
The role of the Army had been to try to contain the situation in August ’69. Then, as the British government could offer no solution other than propping up the Unionists and introducing piecemeal reform and as Catholics continued to struggle for their rights, it was a short step from containment to repression.
The first serious fighting between Catholics and the Army took place in the Ballymurphy area of West Belfast at Easter 1970. Then in July, no doubt encouraged by the election of a Conservative government with a hardnosed security policy to Westminster, troops sealed off the Catholic Lower Falls area and imposed a curfew for a whole weekend while they carried out a house to house arms search. By the Sunday evening four people were dead, hundreds of homes had been wrecked and the honeymoon between troops and Catholics was over -all this for the sake of the handful of weapons which were found.
An IRA campaign of bombings and attacks on soldiers began in earnest in 1971. It was on a small scale compared to what was to come, but it provoked a furious response among Protestants. The Unionist right wing demanded internment without trial. Eventually Edward Heath’ s Conservative government gave way and, on 9 August 1971, 342 people were dragged from their homes and interned. Hundreds more were to join them in the bloody weeks to follow.
Internment led to widespread rioting. Catholic no-go areas were again established as barricades went up around many working class districts. A mass rent and rates strike was begun. Intimidation meant thousands fled their homes in the biggest population shift in Europe since the second world war. Many formerly mixed areas overnight became either predominantly Catholic or predominantly Protestant. Instead of halting the violence, internment was a milestone in its escalation. From the start of 1971, until 8 August, 34 people had been killed. From 9 August to the end of the year the figure was 139 dead.
Six months after internment came an event which would have an equally dramatic effect. On Sunday 30 January, paratroopers opened fire on anti-internment marchers who were parading through the barricaded Bogside area of Derry. When the firing stopped 14 unarmed civilians were dead or dying.
Bloody Sunday, as it became known, was followed by strikes and mass protests North and South, including the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin. But it was the IRA, both the Officials and the Provisionals, who were boosted most by internment, Bloody Sunday and the day to day policy of harassment being carried out by the army.
Poverty, discrimination and now repression drove the Catholic youth to fight back. The labour movement did not attract them because it did not campaign on their behalf -in fact the NILP had a minister in the Unionist government which introduced internment. The mass civil rights protests had not produced results. And so the Catholic youth turned en masse to the IRA who seemed to offer a way to hit back. They joined the Provisionals despite, rather than because of the right wing ideas of its southern leaders. To most volunteers the attraction of the Provisionals was the gun – the precise ideas they could deal with later.
At this lime there were huge illusions that the IRA could succeed in driving out the Army, getting rid of Stormont and reunifying the country. Militant never shared this view. From the very beginning of the campaign Militant stood against the mood of support for the IRA among Catholic youth and warned that their methods would fail.
Methods of the IRA
The methods of the Provisionals and of the Officials, who for a period also conducted a more limited military campaign, were a dead end. Although described as a guerrilla war, this was no such thing. Guerrillaism is a method of struggle which can only be applied in backward rural societies.
When applied to a society as developed and urbanised as Northern Ireland, it becomes, not guerrillaism, but individual terrorism, that is, individual and – isolated military actions carried out by small groups against the state. There is no example anywhere of individual terrorism succeeding.
The only force capable of overthrowing a modem capitalist state is the working class using the methods of mass struggle, demonstrations, strikes, general strikes and ultimately an insurrection. The real answer to the problems facing the Catholic working class in the early 1970s was mass resistance, appealing to and as far as possible linking up with Protestant workers in common action.
Individual terrorism substitutes the actions of a relatively small number for action by the mass of people. Rather than mobilising the population it turns them into spectators, with no role but to look on and applaud. It does not weaken the state, but rather gives it the excuse to introduce repressive laws and implement repressive methods which otherwise it would not have got away with. A clear example of this came in November 1974.
That autumn the IRA had launched a bombing offensive in Britain, with bombs in Guildford, Woolwich and Coventry. Then on 21 November two no-warning bombs in Birmingham pubs killed 21 people, many of them teenagers. The anger and revulsion which followed was seized on by the Labour government who rushed the Prevention of Terrorism Act through parliament. This odious piece of legislation, which allowed the British government to exclude Irish people from England, Scotland and Wales, had cleared the House of Commons in just two days.
In the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, the methods practiced by the Provisionals were doubly foolish. The campaign was based on the minority Catholic community and completely repelled the Protestants. It divided and weakened the working class and in that sense it strengthened the position of the ruling class by holding back the only force which would stand against them.
It was also based on a fundamentally wrong analysis of the situation. The main demand was British withdrawal. Yet the British ruling class would have dearly loved to withdraw. That they could not do so was clown to Protestant opposition and the threat of civil war.
Every action by the Provisionals further enraged Protestants, reinforced their opposition to a united Ireland and so made it even more difficult for the British to withdraw. This was the bitter irony underlying the whole campaign.
After internment a Protestant backlash began in earnest. Leaflets distributed in Protestant areas of Belfast, with the message; “We are loyalists, we are Queen’s men, our enemies are the forces of Romanism and Communism” (11), called for defence groups to be established. Soon an umbrella group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was formed with a membership of thousands – mainly drawn from the working class estates in and around Belfast. The UVF which had been re-formed also began to recruit.
In 1971 the Provisionals blew up a number of bars in Protestant areas. At the end of the year the loyalists replied with a bomb which destroyed McGurk’s bar on the edge of the Catholic New Lodge area of North Belfast, killing 15 people. This was an indication of what these newly formed loyalist organisations would be capable of.
Under growing pressure from hardliners the Unionist government at Stormont was demanding a more severe crackdown against the IRA. Bloody Sunday taught the British government that repression on its own was no answer. To give in to the Unionists would be to court complete disaster. So, in March 1972, they unceremoniously closed clown the Stormont parliament and began direct rule from Westminster.
With Stormont gone and with unionist politicians sidelined, the UDA and UVF began a vicious murder campaign designed to terrorise the Catholic community. Catholics, picked up at random, were beaten and tortured before being killed and their bodies dumped. The Provisionals decided to retaliate opening a period of tit-for-tat sectarian killing. 486 people were killed in 1972, 322 of them civilians. It was the blackest year of the Troubles.
The British government had no answer. With Stormont gone they tried to negotiate with the Provisional Army Council. An IRA delegation, which included Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, was flown to London to meet William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and one of his ministers, Paul Channon. The IRA team listed their demands: (a) a declaration of intent to withdraw British forces from Irish soil by 1 January 1975, (b) pending this the immediate withdrawal of British forces from sensitive areas, (c) a general amnesty for all political prisoners in both countries.
Despite their wish to withdraw, despite Edward Heath’ s promise made earlier in parliament that “if at some future date, the majority of the people of Northern Ireland want unification and express that desire in the appropriate constitutional manner, I do not believe any British government would stand in the way” (12), there was no way the British government could even consider these demands at this time.
On the ground in Catholic working class areas there was only one side to British policy – repression. When negotiations with the IRA, including a brief ceasefire broke down, the state used brute force, including Centurion tanks, to smash its way through the barricades and end the no-go areas. House searches, beatings, arbitrary arrests, plus the more lethal methods of undercover troops were the order of the day. More limited action including internment was used also against Protestant opposition.
With the club of repression aimed at working class areas, the government offered the hand of appeasement and concession to the middle class politicians. From 1970, the former civil rights moderates had regrouped themselves into the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Despite its title this was a middle class Catholic party with a narrow sectarian appeal.
Under the guidance of Whitelaw, the government produced a series of discussion documents and held talks with political leaders. Eventually they came up with a proposal for a new local parliament in which the Official Unionist, SDLP and Alliance Parties would share government positions. As a concession to the SDLP to allow them to enter such a coalition, there was a proposal for an all Ireland body, a Council of Ireland.
Elections to this proposed Assembly were held in June 1973. Together the SDLP with 19 seats, the pro-powersharing unionists around Faulkner with 22, and the middle class Alliance party with 8, had a majority. Eventually these parties agreed to form a government or Executive as it was called, dishing out the cabinet posts between them. In December, one month before it was to take charge, the entire Executive flew to a place called Sunningdale in England for four days of discussion with the British and Irish governments on the question of the Council of Ireland.
In light of the Downing Street Declaration issued by the British and Irish governments in December 1993, these discussions of exactly 20 years earlier have a modern ring.
The Council of Ireland was to be made up of representatives of the Northern Executive and the Dublin government and would deal with a range of issues such as health, tourism, roads, natural resources etc. There would be closer London – Dublin security co-operation. To appease the unionist delegation the Dublin government representatives gave a commitment that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the Northern majority. The British accepted that, if a majority of the Northern Ireland people wished to become part of a united Ireland they could do so.
Hailed at the time as a solution this was no such thing. To unite the political leaders of two sectarian blocs does not unite the communities. Instead of overcoming sectarianism this ‘powersharing’ tends to perpetuate it.
Nor was the idea of a Council of Ireland any solution to the national question. The fundamental problem of Protestant opposition to a united Ireland and Catholic resistance to the status quo was left untouched. It was seen by most working class Catholics for what it was; bait to draw the SDLP into government. Meanwhile Protestants were outraged, fearing that it could be the first step to a united Ireland.
Unfortunately for the newly installed Executive, a strike by British miners early in 1974 toppled the Heath government. A general election was unwelcome news for the new ministers at Stormont. Inevitably it turned into a referendum on powersharing and on Sunningdale. The result was a massive thumbs down – anti-Sunningdale candidates won 11 of the 12 seats with 51 % of the vote.
Protestant workers with UDA and other paramilitary connections set up a body called the Ulster Workers Council and began to prepare for a strike, aiming to do to the Executive what the miners had done to Heath. Paisley and the other anti-Sunningdale unionist politicians were lukewarm, but they were given an ultimatum by UWC leaders, that a strike would go ahead with or without them.
On 14 May, after the Assembly voted to accept Sunningdale, the UWC issued the strike call. At first there was little support. Even in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the vast majority stayed at work. But workers at the big Ballylumford power station near Larne came out. Within a day it was down to half capacity and there were power cuts.
UDA and UVF muscle was applied in estates and workplaces to ‘persuade’ workers not to go to work. For days this went unanswered by the trade unions and the stoppage eventually began to bite.
At the beginning of the second week the unions attempted back to work marches. TUC General Secretary, Len Murray, came over to take part. This initiative was much too little and much too late. Even if they had wanted to, it was by now very difficult for workers to get to the early morning starting points in East Belfast. Only a handful turned up.
Into the second week and real support began to develop for the stoppage. The idea of getting rid of this unpopular Executive took root in Protestant working class areas.
A last ditch attempt by the new Labour Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees to use troops to supply petrol only hardened the stoppage. On 28 May, Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, and his ill-fated Executive bowed to the inevitable and resigned.
Militant opposed this stoppage which struck terror into the Catholic community, further divided the working class, strengthened the position of sectarians in the workplaces, and weakened the trade union movement.
Nonetheless although carried out in a distorted and reactionary manner, the UWC stoppage had shown the power of the working class. It had ( demonstrated the superiority of mass struggle over the, by comparison, feeble methods of the Provisionals. The stoppage also brought home the scale of the defeat suffered by the working class since 1969. The unions had been paralysed by the UWC action.
NILP Loses Support
The NILP was by now a rump. From 105,759 votes in the 1970 general election (including the votes for a Derry Labour Party candidate who was not endorsed by the NILP), its support had fallen to 18,675 votes in the 1973 Assembly elections. Its leadership had moved further and further to the right, in the end to a quite sectarian position. For many of its remaining members the last straw came when prominent party members gave support to the UWC during the stoppage.
This prompted the left, including members of Militant, to set up a Labour and Trade Union Co-ordinating Committee, with the aim of resisting the sectarian degeneration of the party. This body eventually broke with the NILP and, under the banner ‘Labour and Trade Union Group’, continued to campaign for a socialist direction for the labour movement. The NILP gradually disappeared.
MAY 1974 WAS the high part of the sectarian reaction begun in 1969. Thereafter the Troubles began to take a different form. During the first years there had been demonstrations, almost daily rioting, protest strikes and other forms of mass activity. People had been almost constantly on the streets, although most often behind sectarian banners.
The next period would see this mass activity subside. The Troubles would take more of the form of an extended secret war fought out by the various paramilitaries or the state forces. The mass of the people were kept in the dark, their main role, apart from looking on, was to add to the ever-increasing toll of innocent victims.
After the May ’74 stoppage, the labour movement slowly began to recover. The miners’ victory in Britain and then the election of a Labour government, encouraged workers to take strike action. Only months after the UWC victory, lorry drivers went on strike over pay. They were followed by milk workers who began an important strike in which Catholic and Protestant workers stood shoulder to shoulder.
The mood within the working class was shifting away from sectarianism. People were becoming sick of the rioting, the bombing and the killing which they could see was getting nowhere. Support for the paramilitaries began to drain away and all soon found themselves in crisis.
The UWC leaders had no idea what to do after the success of their stoppage. Within weeks their organisation began to fall to pieces, the various paramilitaries going their separate ways.
In 1975, the UDA leaders had to quell an attempt by its West Belfast section to break away. They also endured a bloody feud with the UVF. The UVF tried to turn to electoral politics in 1974, got nowhere, and reverted to an all out sectarian offensive in 1975. It quickly suffered reverses – including the smashing of its east Antrim organisation by an informer – before a coup late in 1975 installed a new leadership.
Early Provisional promises of ‘Victory in ’72’, ‘Victory in ’73’, ‘Victory in ’74’, were no longer believable. At the end of ’74 the Dublin based leadership called a ceasefire which more or less held until the autumn of ’75. Without the military campaign the IRA had no reason to exist. During the ceasefire members drifted away and the organisation was severely damaged. The Official IRA, which had earlier called a permanent ceasefire, was also in crisis. A split and feud in 1975 produced the Irish Republican Socialist Party/Irish National Liberation Army (IRSP/INLA – together know as the Irish Republican Socialist Movement – IRSM), leaving four dead in the process. A feud later in the year between the Officials and the Provisionals claimed 11 lives.
A Provisional decision to reply in kind to the UVF began a series of tit-for-tat atrocities. Catholics and Protestants alike looked on in horror at what was happening. Revulsion eventually turned to anger and workers began to take strike action in protest. In December 1975 and January 1976 three Trades Councils, Derry, Newry and Lurgan, organised general strikes and mass protests against the killings. Workers, Catholic and Protestant, turned out in their thousands.
The trade union leadership, under pressure from union members to do something, launched an anti-sectarian campaign called the Better Life for All Campaign. If a call had come from these leaders for a one day general strike, the province would have closed down in response. Instead they stuck to half-hearted gestures and allowed the opportunity to slip away.
Later in the year an incident in which three children were killed sparked off a peace movement. Mass demonstrations mainly of working class women, including one notable demonstration of 30,000 up the Shankill Road, soon followed. These ‘Peace People’ had no idea where to take this movement, they provided no answers to the Troubles, they ignored the poverty and the injustice which had initially ignited the violence, and not surprisingly, their campaign soon ran out of steam. But it had shown what was possible.
The British ruling class had no solution either. An attempt by Labour Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees, to set up a new local administration quickly collapsed. His successor, Roy Mason, sensing the crisis of the paramilitaries, abandoned political solutions and relied on repression.
Mason’s Heavy Hand
Under Mason, justice took the form of arrests, torture in police custody, forced confessions, and convictions in non-jury courts solely on the basis of these confessions. To create a sense of ‘normality’ for most people the role of the army was scaled clown except in the most troubled areas. A policy of ‘Ulsterisation’ of the security situation meant expanding the numbers and responsibilities of the police and the Ulster Defence Regiment, the almost entirely Protestant local regiment of the British army.
During the mass upheaval of the early 1970s, repression only served to boost the paramilitaries, especially the Provisionals against whom it was chiefly aimed. By the time Roy Mason took charge, support for the paramilitary groups was declining. They faced dissent and some demoralisation in their own ranks. Under these conditions Mason’s repressive policies did have an effect.
The leading Provisionals in the North put the blame for all that was going wrong on the southern leadership and the disastrous ceasefire of 1975. The ceasefire certainly did set the movement back but it was a symptom rather than the cause of the problem. The real cause was the fact that early illusions of a quick victory leading to British withdrawal had come up against the reality of an un-winnable campaign.
Under the insistence of the Northerners, a separate northern command was set up in 1976. Martin McGuinness of Derry became Chief of Staff the following year. Gerry Adams, a member of the republican movement since the mid 1960s, was released from prison in Long Kesh (The Maze) in 1977. Together they formed the core of a new leadership.
The old ideas of all-out escalation and rapid victory were abandoned.Now the strategy was of a long war of attrition. The old military structure was jettisoned in favour of a tighter cell system. An internal document recovered by the Southern state contained a frank admission of how serious the situation was. Acknowledging that members were breaking under police interrogation it went on, “coupled with this factor, which is contributing to our defeat, we are burdened with an inefficient infrastructure of commands, brigades, battalions and companies”. (13) (our emphasis)
Mason publicly boasted that the state was “squeezing the terrorists like rolling up a toothpaste tube”. (14)This was the narrow view of someone who could see no further than short term repression. In fact the state could not hope to completely crush the Provisionals by military means. Repression alone could never be an answer – and the British ruling class had no political solution to put alongside it. By squeezing too hard, especially in clamping down on the rights of prisoners, Mason was preparing for a future partial recovery in the fortunes of the republican movement.
The IRA campaign continued, but on a lower ebb and never with the impact of before. Loyalist killings also continued but again on a lesser scale. Earlier in the Troubles Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling had publicly hoped that an “acceptable level of violence” could be achieved. From the point of view of the ruling class the late 1970s came close to this.
297 died in 1976. The toll for the following year was down dramatically to 112. In 1978 it was down again to 81. 1979 saw it rise slightly to 113 only to fall again to 75 in 1980, the lowest figure since 1970.
By now the Troubles were, for most people, simply a part of life. They did not arouse the passions or spark the mass anger of the early 1970s. An attempt by Paisley and the paramilitaries to repeat the success of the UWC stoppage ended in humiliation. Protestant workers largely ignored the call for a second strike in May 1977 and, after two weeks, the organisers were forced to call it off. Working class people began to pay more attention to the day to day struggle to exist than they did to the sporadic violence of the paramilitaries.
10% of the workforce were out of work in 1977. 150,000 were estimated to be living in poverty. Those who had looked to the Labour government to improve things were to be disappointed.
This government, like previous Labour administrations, tried to manage capitalism instead of overthrowing it. This meant that it was forced, in the end, to carry out policies dictated by the capitalists, including world capitalist institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Public expenditure was cut. Labour’s ‘Pay Policy’ was to limit wage increases to less than the rate of inflation and so cut real wages.
Workers in Northern Ireland were to the fore in resisting this policy. Mackies’ workers were the first to break the 10% wage limit imposed by the government in 1977. Other significant strikes and occupations took place that year. It ended with a strike by fire-fighters against the 10%.
In 1978 the government came back with a proposed .5% limit. For millions of workers this was more than they were prepared to stomach. That winter public service workers embarked on a prolonged series of protests and strikes. 30,000 low paid local authority workers in Northern Ireland came out in January 1979, backing their unions’ demand for a 40% rise. April saw 20,000 civil servants called out.
Although the unions were blamed for Labour’s defeat in the May 1979 general election, this was not the case. It was the pro-capitalist policies of the Labour government which disillusioned workers and which allowed the Conservatives, headed by Margaret Thatcher, to come to power.
Thatcher’s victory coincided with a downturn in the economy which was dramatically worsened by her strict monetarist policies of cuts in spending. Recession brought about a collapse of the already slender manufacturing sector of the Northern Ireland economy.
The number of workers employed in manufacturing had already fallen from 170,000 in 1970, to 140,000 in 1979. By 1982 it had shrunk again to 97,000. There were now more people out of work than had jobs in the wealth producing manufacturing sector.
Buoyed by the growing militancy of the working class in Britain – and by an explosion of the class struggle around the issue of unfair taxation in the South – workers in the North moved into action.
Angry demands from workers that the trade union leaders get off their backsides and do something, spurred a somewhat reluctant Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to call a day of action, in effect a half day general strike, on 2 April 1980 against Tory policies. Even without a clear strike call, 50,000 came out. Thousands marched in Belfast and in Derry.
These years saw the sectarian conflict move a little backstage and class issues came more into view. This was a time when the socialist ideas of Militant and the Labour and Trade Union Croup received a ready echo within the trade unions and among young people.
This was no end to the Troubles – merely a certain reduction in their intensity. Nothing was solved, nothing resolved, but there was an interlude in which the labour movement had the opportunity to shake off the effects of the early 1970s and deliver a blow against sectarianism.
AN INTERLUDE is just that, and if the opportunity were not taken it was certain that some form of new sectarian upsurge would follow.
It was the crude repression of the state, carried beyond the point where it was effective, which was to change things. Merlyn Rees had decided to clamp clown in the prisons to try to break the morale of prisoners. Concessions, such as the right to wear their own clothes and avoid prison work, were withdrawn from those convicted on offences arising out of the Troubles committed after 1 March 1976.
This triggered a protest in the prisons. Republican prisoners first of all refused to wear prison uniforms and were left naked in their cells except for a blanket. Humiliating restrictions imposed by the prison authorities meant that this was escalated in March 1978 into a ‘no-wash’ protest. From then protesting prisoners lived in intolerable, inhuman conditions, forced to sit naked and filthy in stinking cells, the walls smeared with their own excreta.
The difficulties faced by the IRA outside, meant that they were not able to mount an effective support campaign, this despite a mood of considerable sympathy among Catholics for the prisoners’ plight.
Feeling that they were isolated after years of protest, and with no movement from the government, the prisoners decided, against the advice of the outside leadership, to mount a hunger strike. In October 1980 seven prisoners began to refuse food. Their fast ended in December with one prisoner near to death. In return for vague promises from the government they called it off.
If concessions had then been implemented the matter would have ended there. But Thatcher, in characteristically intransigent fashion, sensed victory and the concessions were not given.
Thatcher underestimated both the desperation and the determination of the prisoners. A second fast began on 1 March 1981, when the Provisionals’ commanding officer in the H Blocks, Bobby Sands, refused his meals. Sands stayed on hunger strike until his death in May.
His courageous and defiant stand angered and inspired the Catholic community and the H Block protests drew mass support across the North. When the independent nationalist MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone died suddenly, Sands was nominated to fight the seat. His victory with over 30,000 votes registered the deep chord of sympathy and support which had been struck among the Catholic community.
A general election in the South in June showed the support which also existed there. Of nine prisoners who stood, two were elected and an impressive total of 40,000 votes was polled.
After Sands, nine other prisoners were to die before the hunger strike was called off. No concessions were given but neither had the government won any real victory. Thatcher’s refusal to give way had alienated the Catholic community and prepared for the political rise of Sinn Fein.
Rise of Sinn Fein
The hunger strikes restored the morale of the movement. There was no mass turn of the youth to the Provisionals but there were enough recruits to sustain a long campaign. Its most important effect was the rise of Sinn Fein.
At the 1981 Ard Fhéis, Sinn Fein’s Director of Publicity, Danny Morrison, explained the new dual strategy which, through the votes for H Block candidates, the republican movement had stumbled upon: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if with a ballot box in this hand and an armalite in this hand we take power in Ireland?” (15)
Thatcher’s government made a doomed attempt to create yet another local administration. Elections to this Assembly were held in 1982 and Sinn Fein, seriously contesting elections in the North for the first lime since the 1950s, took 10% of the vote. In the 1983 Westminster elections their vote went up to 13.4% and, in a notable victory, Gerry Adams won the West Belfast seat.
Sinn Fein’s vote was more the angry reply of an alienated Catholic community, especially of the Catholic working class, to the hunger strikes land to Tory economic policies, than it was a calculated support for the IRA campaign. Still, its effect was to reinforce the sectarian political impasse.
Overall, although there was no return to the levels of violence of the early ’70s, there was a new and deep sectarian polarisation. The leaders of the labour movement bore a heavy responsibility for this. Just as ten years earlier the trade unions had pulled out of the civil rights struggle and had ignored internment and Bloody Sunday, so during the long H Block protest they refused to campaign for decent conditions for these prisoners.
Their argument was that this, and other aspects of repression (shoot to kill, supergrasses, etc.) were sectarian issues which would split the unions if they touched them. But the truth is that repression is not a sectarian issue. It only becomes so if it is left to people who take it up in a sectarian manner.
Yet Militant was able to take up the issue of the H Blocks within the labour movement and the working class both in Britain and Ireland. Militant’s call for an end to oppression in the prisons, for the right of all prisoners to wear their own clothes, have a choice of work or study and for a labour movement review of the cases of all those convicted of offences arising from the Troubles to determine who, in its eyes, is and is not a political prisoner, found a ready echo among both Catholic and Protestant workers. A resolution moved on the British Labour Party National Executive Committee by the Young Socialist representative, a Militant supporter, committed that party to this position.
The trade union leaders should have led the campaign outside the prisons from the start. In doing so they should have explained that they stood for decent conditions for all prisoners. They should have attempted to link this issue with the industrial battles then taking place first against Labour and then against the Tory government. If they had done all this, the labour movement, not Sinn Fein, would have been in position to draw the political capital.
But this would have meant that the nonsense that the trade unions are not political would have had to be put to the side. To conduct strikes and other forms of industrial struggle against government policies without also conducting a political struggle was like wielding a knife without a blade. A conference of trade union and community activists should have been called to build a socialist Labour Party which could have united the working class against all forms of Toryism.
None of this was clone and the result was sectarian polarisation and the rise of Sinn Fein. Yet even during and after the hunger strikes there were strikes over pay which united Catholic and Protestant workers.
Civil servants conducted a protracted struggle over pay in 1981. In 1982 it was the turn of health workers, among the most lowly paid section of the working class. The most abiding memory of that year is not of sectarian confrontation but of regular demonstrations, all of them noisy, colourful, vibrant and angry, of health workers and other workers who supported them.
Eventually it was events in Britain, not the North, which drew the most decisive line across this movement of opposition to Tory policies. The magnificent year long miners’ strike of 1984/5 inspired millions of workers not only in Britain, but in Europe and further afield. There were continuous street, workplace, and door to door collections, regular meetings and other solidarity activity in Northern Ireland.
It was therefore a cruel blow when, largely because the British Trades Union Congress refused to defy Tory anti-union laws and organise effective blacking and sympathetic strike action, it ended in defeat. This defeat sapped the will of other workers to struggle for a period. ‘New Realism’, in other words the doctrine which said ‘we must always capitulate to employers demands’ and ‘we must always sell out and betray our members’ became enshrined as the philosophy of the roc and most union leaders.
Thatcher’s defeat of the miners did not rescue her government’s policy in Northern Ireland. Two attempts to try to gel local parties to agree to a new local Assembly ended in failure. Early discussions with the Dublin government proved fruitless. The lasting effect of the hunger strike was to partially undermine the SDLP, the one ‘moderate’ voice in the Catholic community with whom the government might hope to ‘do business’.
The danger that the SDLP might come apart in the government’s hands forced a somersault. In November 1985 Thatcher met with the heads of the South’ s Fine Gael – Labour coalition government at Hillsborough, a few miles outside Belfast and the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed. Today those who signed it, both Prime Ministers included, regard it as having failed. It is therefore worth noting that at the time it was hailed as an historic breakthrough by the entire political establishment, the Irish and British Labour Parties included; Militant was the only voice raised which explained that it would solve nothing but would make things worse and which counterposed a socialist alternative.
Like what was discussed at Sunningdale, twelve years and over seventeen hundred deaths earlier, the preamble to the Agreement setting out the status of Northern Ireland, echoes closely the more recent ‘breakthrough’, the Downing Street Declaration.
“The two governments (a) affirm that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland (b) recognise that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland is for no change in the status of Northern Ireland (c) declare that, if in the future a majority of the people of Northern Ireland clearly wish for and formally consent to the establishment of a united Ireland, they will introduce and support in the respective parliaments, legislation to have effect to that wish” .(16)
The Anglo Irish Agreement allowed the Dublin government a consultative role in the North. The changes it proposed were all largely window dressing, minor sops to the SDLP to try to restore their credibility among Northern Catholics.
Thatcher was a particularly unsubtle, particularly hamfisted, representative of the British ruling class. Her idea of diplomacy, which was to stomp around in political hob-nailed boots, was especially unsuited to the delicately balanced politics of Northern Ireland. Having already alienated Catholics, she succeeded in antagonising virtually the entire Protestant community with the Anglo Irish Agreement, above all with the manner in which it was imposed without any prior consultation with unionists. A protest rally held one week after the Agreement was signed, drew close on 300,000 people to the front of Belfast’s City Hall.
In March 1986 loyalist workers forced the leaders of the two main unionist parties, the OUP and DUP to call a one day strike which was well supported by Protestant workers. Sectarian violence became widespread. Catholics were threatened and intimidated in some workplaces. Many Catholic homes were petrol-bombed. The UDA and UVF had their hands in all this. They managed to draw a layer of new recruits to what had been largely exhausted and discredited organisations.
New Protestant paramilitary organisations sprang up. The Ulster Clubs, based in Portadown, soon claimed 10,000 members. A shadowy umbrella organisation embracing a number of paramilitary groups and calling itself Ulster Resistance was set up, with prominent DUP politicians at the helm. The effect of all this was to render the Agreement stillborn. The Anglo Irish structures stayed in place but they were never built on. A few changes were introduced – repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act, which had made it an offence to fly the Irish tricolour in the North and the re-routing of Orange parades – but these would probably have come anyway. It did not take the elaborate construction of an inter-governmental agreement, a permanent secretariat, not to mention the turmoil it provoked, to produce these paltry changes.
By the autumn of 1986 the sectarian reaction had begun to subside- for two main reasons. Firstly the working class began to react against the intimidation. In August DHSS workers in Lisburn, 10 miles west of Belfast, walked out after Catholic members of staff received threats. The Broad Left and Militant led DHSS section of their union called out its 4,000 members in support. The UDA, which had made the threat, withdrew it. This was a signal to other workers to answer threats in the same way.
Secondly, the fact that the Agreement was in reality put on ice by both governments, lessened Protestant worries that they were about to be delivered into a united Ireland by a deal struck behind their backs. The level of protest dropped away.
The net result for the government was a deeper political impasse than before. The SDLP, with Sinn Fein still breathing down their necks, had to hang on to the idea of Dublin involvement and would only enter talks on the future of the North on this basis. The Unionists would not enter talks so long as the Agreement and Dublin involvement stayed in place.
It was a stand off. And it would be seven years before the Tory government, now led by John Major, dared produce another ‘grand’ initiative to ‘solve’ the problem.
NO FORCE COULD find a way to break the entrenched stalemate which followed the Anglo Irish Agreement. The British ruling class, their hands still sore from the effects of their most recent policy failure, began to frankly admit that there was no answer to the problem.
Nor could any of the political parties or the Dublin government find a way out. And illusions held by both republican and loyalist paramilitary leaders that their respective forces might achieve a breakthrough were quickly shattered.
In 1987 the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance co-operated to rob a Portadown bank and used the money to buy arms in South Africa. The cache was divided between the three groups and, although most of the UDA’s share was intercepted by the state, the loyalists found themselves for the first time in possession of a plentiful supply of modem weapons.
But it takes more than guns to make an army. When the mass resistance of Protestants to the Anglo Irish Agreement died clown, the UDA and UVF ended up back in the situation they had been in before. Ulster Resistance fell away as the DUP politicians began to pull back from it. The other newly formed group, the Ulster Clubs, eventually disappeared as a force.
The UVF retained its core of activists, especially in Belfast and the Portadown/Mid-Ulster area, and it carried on with its campaign of sectarian assassinations. It remained small, secretive and quite isolated.
The UDA suffered serious setbacks in the late ’80s. Television’s The Cook Report exposed their crude methods of extortion, only one of many illegal fund raising methods used by all the paramilitaries. Divisions over the effects of this on the organisation’ s image and over the fact that there was co-operation with republican groups in organising rackets, led to internal disputes. John McMichael, leader of the UDA’ s murder wing, the UFF, was assassinated by the IRA but with the probable assistance of UDA members. The man believed to be responsible, arch racketeer Jim Craig, was later shot by the UDA itself.
On top of these problems came a police probe into links between loyalist paramilitaries and sections of the state forces. There was clear evidence of collusion in the assassination of Catholics. The result of this enquiry was that a large section of the UDA leadership were imprisoned in 1990.
The following year saw the ousting of the UDA’s commander, Andy Tyrie. Tyrie had been at the top of the organisation since 1973, a remarkably long shelf life for a paramilitary leader. He was replaced by a younger leadership who were not satisfied with the organisation’s killing rate.
For the IRA things were to turn out no better. After the hunger strikes the dual ‘ballot box and armalite’ tactic was launched. Within the movement and among its supporters, there were high hopes of what could be achieved. Central to the political strategy were two things the need to displace the SDLP as the main nationalist party in the North and the need to make a political breakthrough in the South.
Sinn Fein’ s policy was that candidates elected either to Westminster or the southern Dail (parliament) would refuse to take their seats. The new northern leadership around Gerry Adams, who had taken over as President of Sinn Fein in 1983, while they supported this in relation to Westminster, saw it as a barrier to any electoral success in the South. They understood that old republican arguments that the pail, was an “illegitimate, partitionist parliament”, sounded to most people in the South as the language of cranks.
So determined were they to get rid of this policy and clear the way for the political successes they thought would come, they were even prepared to risk a split in Sinn Fein and the IRA.
In 1986 an IRA convention accepted that abstention in relation to the South would go, but only after concessions were made to hardliners. These included more hardliners in the IRA leadership and more freedom to local units.
The issue was then taken to a Sinn Fein Ard Fhéis in November where a 429-161 majority backed the anti-abstentionist wing led by Gerry Adams. There was a walk out by the old guard who set up a rival organisation, Republican Sinn Fein.
Having gone to these lengths to get their way the performance of Sinn Fein in subsequent southern elections was a bitter disappointment. In the 1987 general election they got a tiny 1.7% of the total vote and had no-one elected. In 1989 their vote shrank to 1.2% and again they won no seats.
Sinn Fein’s results in the North were more mixed. Their 1983 general election result, 103,000 votes or 13.4% of the total poll, was to be the summit of their success. After this the gap between them and the SDLP widened. In the 1985 district council elections, the SDLP won 42 more seats than Sinn Fein. In 1993, the SDLP ended with 75 more seats than their rivals.
With the SDLP consistently ahead in elections, Sinn Fein’s early hopes of overtaking them could not be sustained. On the other hand Sinn Fein remained a considerable force. In the working class Catholic areas of Belfast they had a clear-cut majority. The 1993 local elections gave them 10 seats on Belfast Council as compared to 9 for the SDLP. The British government’ s attempts to dislodge and marginalise them through initiatives like the Anglo Irish Agreement, had failed. They could not be pushed back, but this was only a partial consolation to their leadership who, by the 1990s, had run out of ideas of how to take them forward.
The 1986 split in Sinn Fein did not produce a split in the IRA. One reason was that at this time a new military offensive was in preparation. The long war strategy had been pursued for ten years. Mostly it had been a low-key campaign, punctuated from time to time by spectacular operations such as the 1984 bombing of the Tory leadership in the Grand Hotel in Brighton.
No matter how spectacular the operation, the British ruling class remained unmoved. The Provisional campaign represented no fundamental danger to their interests. Even if it took the lives of a few cabinet ministers, capitalism would remain intact. Within Britain, IRA actions produced hostility from British workers, not the hoped for pressure on the government to withdraw. The long war was going nowhere.
Within the IRA there was frustration and pressure for a military escalation. In place of the long war there was to be a final push. Echoing earlier propaganda, there was talk of ‘Victory in ’86’. The basis for this was the decision by the Ghadaffi government in Libya to donate 240 tons of arms and explosives to the IRA – Ghadaffi’ s thank you to Thatcher for her decision to allow US planes to take off from British bases to bomb Tripoli. About half of these weapons eventually got through.
The first of the arms shipments was smuggled in 1986 – just as the movement was debating abstention. Their arrival was enough to convince hardliners opposed to ending abstention that at least there would be no softening of the military campaign.
As with the loyalists, so with the IRA it was to be a case that weapons do not make a war. The mood did not exist among the Catholic population for a return to the early 1970s. The secretive nature of the IRA, the cell led structure which limited recruits, the tactic of individual terrorism, all made it impossible to put into use a hoard of weapons, more suited to the needs of the army of a small country.
The IRA came up against the limits of its own tactics. It also encountered a state which had refined its methods of dealing with them. The army, using the SAS and other undercover units, replied with a ruthless shoot to kill policy. Between May 1987 and May 1988 nineteen IRA activists were killed, a severe toll on a small organisation.
Even bristling with modem weapons, a ‘big push’ was beyond the IRA’s reach. They were forced back to the long war, not so much out of choice but because there was no other strategy on offer.
Economic factors also weighed against the Provisionals – and the other paramilitaries for a time. While the world economic boom of the 1980s largely missed out on the North it did have some effects.
These were concentrated mainly in retail and entertainment. Tory attacks on living standards were continued, but the cuts in public spending were, at first, not so severe as in Britain. They held back on some of their most vicious policies – the poll tax for example was not introduced in Northern Ireland. The huge subvention or handout given each year by the British Treasury to balance Northern Ireland’ s books rose dramatically to almost £2bn in 1988-9.
All this kept the public sector, which employed 40% of the workforce, afloat. Public sector wages in turn boosted the shops, cinemas, restaurants, cafes and pubs. Belfast and Derry city centres underwent a transformation with new buildings, modern shopping complexes, new restaurants, refurbished pubs and new cinemas.
The poverty and unemployment in the working class estates in Derry remained. Derry, despite its facelift, was a city of deprivation. A report in a community magazine Fingerpost published in 1994, found that seven of the ten most deprived wards in Northern Ireland were in John Hume’s Derry constituency of Foyle. Hume’ s much publicised schemes for investment such as the Derry-Boston Venture scheme, helped create only a ‘shopping mall economy’ , based on low investment and high profits. Still, the sense of revival in Derry was strong enough to affect the Provisionals.
Massive car bombs in Belfast’s city centre achieved nothing but a loss of support. The change to the centre of Derry, which had been a bombed out shell for most of the 1970s, was one reason why IRA activity there all but spluttered to a complete halt.
For the ruling class this was a period of relative stability, the death rate stayed at less than 100 per year, an ‘acceptable level of violence’ for Westminster politicians. Northern Ireland as an issue went to the background of British politics.
The IRA could not be beaten in the sense that the army could eliminate them, that much was clear. But neither could they win. This was now beginning to be understood by a section of its own leadership, forced back to a long war which had no end in sight.
Sensing that a change was taking place within the IRA the British government adopted a new approach. The IRA could not be crushed. The attempt through the Anglo Irish Agreement to marginalise Sinn Fein had not worked. The alternative was to try to draw the republican movement into the ‘safe’ world of establishment politics.
Tory Secretary of State of Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, made a Significant speech in 1990 which was both a challenge and an overture to the IRA. He repeated, a little more precisely, the message which had been contained in the Sunningdale discussion and the Anglo Irish Agreement.
“The British government has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, our role is to help, enable and encourage. Britain’s purpose, as I have sought to describe it, is not to occupy, oppress or exploit, but to ensure democratic debate and free democratic choice”.
And, “An Irish republicanism seen to have finally renounced violence, would be able, like other parties, to seek a role in the peaceful political life of the community. In Northern Ireland it is not the aspiration to a sovereign united Ireland against which we set our face, but its violent expression. (17)
Gerry Adams, rather than reject these comments, said they had to be tested. A major discussion within the IRA at the time ended with the dropping of the demand for British withdrawal as the condition for a ceasefire. The new objective was that Britain should concede ‘the right of Irish people to self-determination’.
John Hume, in discussions with Gerry Adams in 1988 and 1993, concentrated on the theme that Britain wanted to pull out and that the IRA campaign was therefore a nonsense. It was the Protestants, not the British, who had to be convinced, or in republican language, ‘persuaded’. By 1993 it was clear that a big section of the IRA leadership had come to accept this.
Secret talks between the government and the IRA during the first half of 1993, angled around what might be the terms of a ceasefire. Negotiations were also opened up, via intermediaries, between the Dublin government and the loyalist paramilitaries. The fruits of all this, as far as the British and Irish governments were concerned, was the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration.
The core of this document was a rehash of what had been said, more than once, before. The Irish government, using a wording designed to meet demands made to them by loyalist paramilitaries, accepted that Irish unity could only come about with the consent of the people of the North. The British government reaffirmed that it would accept the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland either to retain the link with Britain or join a united Ireland.
All that was new was the language it used. A key section read: “The British government agree that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone by agreement between the two parts respectively to exercise their right to self determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given North and South to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.” (18)
Not a sentence which would win any literary awards! The meaning hidden behind this jumble of words and phrases is straightforward; no change without the consent of the majority in the North. However the phrase “the right to self determination” was new to British ministerial language and was thrown in as a bait to hook the IRA into a ceasefire.
Learning from Thatcher’s mistake with the Anglo Irish Agreement, the government were this time careful to consult with the bigger unionist party, the Official Unionists, and to win their support in advance. This, plus assurances from John Major that the Declaration secured the union with Britain for the foreseeable future, was enough to prevent a huge Protestant backlash. Protestants had strong misgivings but not enough to take to the streets or turn in any numbers to the paramilitaries. A mood of weariness and disgust at the sectarian violence and a strong desire for peace existed in both communities and translated into a feeling that the Declaration should be given a chance. Paisley’ s DUP roared its defiance but the majority of Protestants remained unmoved.
By the time the Declaration was issued a large section of the republican leadership favoured a ceasefire. Although it offered republicans nothing of substance that was new, they chose not to reject it outright. Instead they sought ‘clarification’ of some of its implications from the British and Irish governments. This was largely to buy extra time to prepare the IRA ranks for a ceasefire.
Meanwhile the process of enticing the Sinn Fein leadership into the world of establishment politics continued apace. The Irish government dropped its broadcasting ban and on 19 January Gerry Adams gave his first interview on a Dublin radio station.
Adams found himself the focus of the world’ s media when a decision by the Clinton administration allowed him to make a two day visit to the United States where he was feted by Irish American politicians and capitalists. The British government offered no more than token condemnation.
After this the statements of Sinn Fein’ s leading spokespersons were particularly conciliatory. Party national chairman, Tom Hartley, declared in March that Sinn Fein would have to make compromises and that “there can be no victories”.(19)
On 30 March the IRA announced a three day Easter ceasefire. Although publicly dismissed by the British government as insufficient, the main Irish American political organisations, including the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs called on the British to give a ‘positive response’.
By May the British government had decided to provide written answers to twenty questions submitted by Sinn Fein on the Downing Street Declaration. This clarification, when it was eventually given on 24 May, said nothing that was new.
By the time a special Sinn Fein conference was held in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, to discuss the Declaration and its ‘clarification’, the IRA were already on the road to a ceasefire. The conference rejected the Declaration, but the tone of the leadership speeches was conciliatory. They were by now committed to what they would term “the unarmed strategies of republicanism” to carry forward their struggle. For them the days of the’ armed struggle’ were over.
The arrival in Belfast, late in August, of a United States delegation made up of wealthy businessmen, William Flynn of Mutual of America and Charles Feeney head of the multinational, General Atlantic, plus former Congressman Bruce Morrison then poised to join the Clinton administration as Federal Housing Finance Chairman, signalled the end. They came equipped with much publicised but very vague promises of US government aid as well as an influx of US private investment should the IRA call a halt.
By the time the US delegation left it was all signed, sealed and delivered. As August came to a close, and amid intense speculation that the campaign was to be ended, an IRA statement was issued which began: “Recognising the potential of the current situation and in order to enhance the democratic process and underlying our definitive commitment to its success, the leadership of the IRA have decided that as of midnight August 31, there will be a complete cessation of military operations. All our units have been instructed accordingly”.(20)
As to what had been achieved by the long IRA campaign the statement had the following to say: “Our struggle has seen many gains and advances made by nationalists and for the democratic position. We believe that an opportunity to secure a just and lasting settlement has been created. We are therefore entering into a new situation in a spirit of determination and confidence determined that the injustices which created this conflict will be removed and confident in the strength and justice of our struggle to achieve this”.(21)
A similar upbeat tone was struck in the working class Catholic areas of West and North Belfast where Sinn Fein celebrations included car cavalcades adorned with tricolours. The main mood was of intense relief that at last the campaign was over, but this was topped with a deliberately injected sense that, if not a victory, then at least substantial gains had been won.
Certainly there was a justifiable cause for pride in these working class Catholic areas which for decades had endured hardship, suffering and repression. Despite all that first the Unionists, and then the British state, had heaped upon them, their spirit of resistance remained unbroken.
There would be no return to the days when Catholics were second class citizens, in a Unionist state. Never again would the blatant discrimination in jobs and housing or the political discrimination which maintained the Unionist fur-coat brigade in power, be tolerated.
Contrary to what was believed by many of those celebrating the ceasefire, these gains were not the result of the IRA campaign. In reality, the days of Unionist hegemony and Catholic submission were numbered from the moment that the blows of RUC truncheons rained down on the skulls of civil rights protestors in Derry’ s Duke Street on that fateful Saturday afternoon in October 1968.
The mass resistance of the Catholic working class which followed and which has been sustained with ebbs and flows and in various forms ever since, was responsible for the changes which were brought about. At the very best, the IRA campaign was a blunt instrument of the resistance. At worst it was counterproductive serving only to strengthen the state by providing it with the excuse to develop its repressive apparatus and its brutal methods of containment. The IRA campaign deflected from the much more effective mass forms of struggle, demonstrations, public protests and civil disobedience. It enraged and antagonised Protestant workers and in this way dramatically deepened the division between Protestant and Catholic workers. By setting back the prospect of a united class movement it reinforced, rather than weakened, the position of capitalism in Ireland.
Given the ending of the campaign it is correct and necessary to draw a balance sheet. That drawn by the republican leadership is flawed in analysis and false in estimation.
The British government recognised that they could not finally eradicate the IRA by military means. Their adversary had the arsenal of weapons and the ability to continue with a low level campaign for as long as they retained the will.
So the Tories were prepared to discuss with the IRA leadership and to hold out on the prospect of concessions on the release of prisoners, on ‘demilitarisation’, i.e. the closure of army bases and phased pull out of the British troops, on lifting the TV ban on Sinn Fein, on opening border roads, on the inclusion of Sinn Fein leaders in talks after what they called a ‘decontamination’ period, and on other such issues.
This is no more than the Heath government was prepared to offer twenty years earlier. On the fundamental national question the position of the British ruling class remained as it had been in the 1960s – they would prefer to withdraw but the fact of Protestant resistance made this impossible. Instead they would seek a constitutional compromise along the lines of the fudge of the Downing Street Declaration, itself an updated rehash of what they had attempted with the Sunningdale agreement more than two decades previous. Even while speaking to supporters celebrating the ceasefire announcement, Gerry Adams acknowledged that on what he called the ‘core issues’ of British withdrawal, the right of the Irish people to self determination and the call for the British to ‘persuade’ Protestants to accept a united Ireland there had been no movement.
Tragedy of campaign
The IRA campaign represented an enormous effort which achieved, in the end, no more than a return to what had been on offer at the beginning. We are left to imagine what might have been achieved had this effort, with all the sacrifice, determination and endurance which made it up, had been put instead into a mass struggle for socialism. The greatest tragedy of the Provos’ campaign is that it wasted and ultimately sapped the revolutionary will of two generations of Catholic youth.
The ceasefire was a retreat, not an advance and certainly not a victory. The IRA had shifted their ground considerably, the British government hardly at all. The real reason for the ceasefire – by the same leaders who after 1975, had said, ‘no more ceasefires until British withdrawal’ – was because of the impasse of the military campaign, the failure to make the hoped-for political breakthrough, especially in the South, and because Gerry Adams and others around him had developed illusions that progress could be made in other ways.
The 1980s saw a clear shift to the right at the top of the republican movement. Sinn Fein and the IRA had always been nationalist not socialist organisations. Because their support came from working class areas where socialist traditions were strong, their nationalism had to be dressed up in a disguise of radical, even socialist sounding language. By the late 1980s and especially after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and then Russia, this radical pretence was abandoned.
The words ‘Sinn Fein’ translated into English mean ‘ourselves alone’. Into the 1990s, and with their failure to make the hoped for headway either militarily or politically, ‘ourselves alone’, was no longer the motto adopted in practice.
A major Sinn Fein policy document, Towards a Lasting Peace, issued in February 1992, called on bodies such as the United Nations to help solve the problem. The spectacle of what appeared to be settlements in South Africa and the Middle East, with the ANC and the PLO brought in from the cold, strengthened illusions in a negotiated deal possibly brokered by outside bodies.
One body courted by Sinn Fein is the US government. During his US visit early in 1994 Gerry Adams publicly welcomed the idea of the Clinton administration becoming involved. The backing given by the wealthy Irish/American political establishment who formerly bestowed their favours on John Hume and the SDLP, is a key component of Sinn Fein’s new ‘unarmed strategy’.
Meanwhile the Sinn Fein leaders have done an abrupt about face in their attitude to their former adversaries in the SDLP in the North and to the political representatives of Irish capitalism in the South.
In the past they denounced these people as ‘constitutional nationalists’ who would only deliver compromise and betrayal. In the period leading up to the ceasefire all this changed. John Hume and Gerry Adams adopted a joint position in a document agreed between them in September 1993 but never published. After the Downing Street declaration the Dublin government issued a proposal for a Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Sinn Fein’ s anxiety to enter this body so as to be part of a joint nationalist bloc with the SDLP, Fianna Fail and the other right wing parties of Irish capitalism, further explains the urgency with which its leaders pursued a ceasefire.
Although the ending of the campaign was followed by talk of demonstrations and mass activity to pursue Sinn Fein’s demands, it is clear that this is not the main thread of the new ‘unarmed strategy of republicanism’. Sinn Fein has placed its main hopes of progress in the forging of this new nationalist bloc with the SDLP and Fianna Fail in Ireland and on the support it can get from the Clinton administration and from people like the Kennedys and other wealthy Irish Americans.
Behind this is the idea that a formidable body of nationalist opinion backed by world powers will pressurise the British and that the British in turn will pressurise or ‘persuade’ the Protestants. Out of all this Sinn Fein hope for a constitutional settlement and step by step progress to complete separation from Britain and to the achievement of what they call, somewhat vaguely, a ‘new’ Ireland.
All this is a deception. Their entry into a nationalist bloc with former political adversaries is a neatly designed trap which will oblige them to dance to the political tune of the SDLP and Fianna Fail, not vice versa.
All of the other nationalist parties have come to accept the idea of no change to the existing constitutional position without the consent of a majority of people in the North. Even if they do not openly agree with this – and there are indications that they will – Sinn Fein will have to go along with this idea in practice as the price of their involvement in Dublin’s new Forum. Only a few years ago such a thing would have been denounced by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and co. as ‘capitulation to partition’, ‘acceptance of the Unionist veto’, etc. Then the only decision they would have accepted was that of the Irish people as a whole, not of the “six county enclave” in the North.
This new nationalist talking shop will neither solve the day to day problems, nor meet the aspirations of Catholic working class people in the North. Nor will the institutions of world capitalism offer a solution. Insofar as the Palestinians or the black working class of South Africa have taken a step forward it has been as a result of their own mass heroic actions, the Intifada and the years of strikes and mass struggles in South Africa. It has not come as a gift from world imperialism, who have only intervened to cut a deal in order to preserve their interests and bring stability for capitalism these regions. For the Palestinians and South African masses there has been no delivery from the fundamental problems of mass poverty an injustice.
The United Nations could no more guarantee democratic rights or resolve the national conflict in Ireland than it could in Iraq during and after the Gulf war, in the former Yugoslavia, in Somalia or anywhere else. Clinton’s efforts to strangle what remains of the Cuban revolution through its blockade, carried out just as the US delegation visited Ireland in August, shows the real face of US imperialism – no friend or ally of the working class of Ireland or any other country.
The armed struggle was a dead end but the unarmed strategy of reliance on false friends in Dublin and Washington will likewise prove just as much of a blind alley. This is not to minimise the consequences of the ceasefire. In a sense the Troubles, in the form in which they have taken for a quarter century ended at midnight on 31 August when the IRA put its momentous decision into effect.
In Protestant working class areas the immediate reaction was of anger and uncertainty. This was exacerbated by the sight of Sinn Fein celebrations, which to many Protestant workers appeared to be little more than nationalist coat trailing. Protestants were deeply suspicious that some deal had been struck with the IRA behind the scenes. It did not seem possible that the organisation they saw as a ruthless and determined enemy would just give up.
On the other hand the possibility of a ceasefire which might hold was to be welcomed. As among the Catholic working class so in Protestant working class areas there was a strong desire for peace. While still suspicious that some trick was in the offing most people, even in hardline areas like the Shankill were prepared to wait and see. Paisley’ s bombastic warnings of civil war were well wide of the mark.
As the IRA ceasefire continued, with no major concessions yet apparent, Protestant anger lessened. More and more the attitude developed that all paramilitary activity should now stop.
The UDA and UVF had little option but to acknowledge and respond to this mood. In the previous twelve months the Protestant working class had served notice that there are limits to what they will tolerate being carried out in their name.
On 10 October 1993 a botched IRA bomb blew up a fishmongers shop on Belfast’ s Shankill Road. Nine people (ten including the bomber), out shopping on a Saturday morning, were killed in an atrocity reminiscent of the first years of the Troubles.
One week later the UDA hit back gunning clown seven people in a quiet country bar in Greysteel, Co. Derry. Other revenge attacks were carried out in Belfast. Well known community activists in the Shankill, horrified at what was happening, met with local paramilitary leaders and told them that unless the revenge atrocities were stopped they would mobilise the people of the area against them. This was a warming which the local paramilitaries had to take seriously.
In May 1994 a UVF unit operating inside the Harland and Wolff shipyard murdered a middle-aged Catholic who had worked for years in the yard. His body was found lying in the hold of a ship where he had been working. Shop stewards responded by calling a mass meeting of the entire, overwhelmingly Protestant, workforce on the following morning. A proposal for a protest strike was carried and every single worker in the yard, in a fabulous display of solidarity, downed tools and walked out.
Had the UDA and UVF answered the IRA ceasefire with a new round of assassinations and atrocities they would have met with a similar reaction of revulsion and protest from within their own areas. This fact gave the UVF and the UDA little option but to call a ceasefire. At a press conference on 13 October, the Combined Loyalist Military Command, representing the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commandos, announced that from midnight that night, these bodies would suspend their campaigns for as long as the IRA ceasefire held. So after 25 years and almost 3,350 dead, paramilitary activity, certainly on the scale of the past, has been ended for a period at least.
All the talk is now of the ‘Peace Process’ and of the terms of a settlement. Agreement on a new assembly with powers to administer local services and an arrangement that the perks of power be shared between unionists and nationalists is likely.
Some Dublin involvement in the affairs of the North will be sanctioned, with joint North/ South committees to oversee matters of common interest, tourism, economic development, agriculture etc.
As to the constitutional position the British government have hinted that the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which legislated for partition could be amended to state that, should a majority in the North wish to break with Britain and join a united Ireland they would be free to do so.
To the Southern Irish ruling class the territorial claim over the North contained in Articles 2 & 3 of their constitution has never had any practical meaning. Until now the anti-imperialist traditions felt deeply by the population have prevented them scrapping this claim. Rather they have been obliged to continue with anti-British posturing with which they have been increasingly ill at ease. Now, as part of what they can advertise as an overall ‘settlement’ they would be only too prepared to replace these articles with a general aspiration for eventual Irish unity, but only by the consent of the majority in the North.
If the paramilitary guns stay silent the British government would draw back its repressive apparatus. Sinn Fein, suitably ‘de-contaminated’, would be included in talks and encouraged to take their seats in a new Northern Assembly, to argue their case from within. De-militarisation would mean the withdrawal of troops from Catholic areas, possibly eventually from the streets altogether. The military forts and offensive watchtowers which dot the landscape would largely disappear. The RUC, still unacceptable in Catholic areas, would probably be given a facelift, possibly through a change of name, new monitoring procedures and appeals for Catholics to join.
A referendum on an eventual package of measures backed by the major parties might well be passed – and, if so, would certainly reinforce such an agreement for a period.
ARE THE TIES of class going to prove stronger than the ties of religion? This is the real question which will decide Northern Ireland’s future. Although there are still the lingering effects of anti-Catholic discrimination, Protestant and Catholic workers have far more in common with each other than they have with the middle and upper class of either religion.
Health cuts, privatisation, student loans, cheap labour YTP schemes, poverty wages, VAT on fuel – these indignities do not discriminate on religious lines. But they do discriminate in that it is the working class, not the rich, who suffer their effects most.
Likewise it is in the working class areas that the effects of the Troubles have been felt. For the wealthy living miles away from army and police patrols and from the areas scoured by death squads, Northern Ireland has offered a peaceful and pleasant life.
The richest 1% now have an average income of £84,000 per year. Rich Catholics in this bracket have long moved away from the ghettos, moving into what formerly were upper middle class Protestant areas like Belfast’s Malone Road. Rich Protestants have tended to retreat to sanctuaries such as North Down and the Ards peninsula. There, the ugly eyesore of Bangor’s new marina is crammed with evidence of opulence, the golf courses are full and life for the wealthy is free of the stresses and strains of the working class areas. Ask these people as they board their yachts for their views of the effects of ‘The Troubles’ and they will only be able to reply, “what Troubles?”
Working class unity is not utopian. It exists and always has existed to some degree. Protestant and Catholic workers stand together on a thousand and one issues in the workplaces and in the unions. Countless campaigns against health cuts, privatisation and other local issues have cut right through the religious divide. Strikes have always united Catholic and Protestant – in fact, during the whole period of the Troubles not a single strike has been broken because of sectarianism. Recent strikes by textile workers, shipyard workers, bank workers, staff in Electricity showrooms, at the Montupet car component’ s factory and others – have shown the readiness of workers to unite.
Perhaps the most spectacular examples of class unity have been on the issue of sectarianism itself. Militant Labour (now the Socialist Party) has had a crucial role in developing these movements.
In the summer of 1986, at the height of the Protestant backlash against the Anglo Irish Agreement, Militant members were to the fore in organising strikes by DHSS workers against sectarian intimidation of Catholic staff in one office. At that time intimidation was a widespread and growing problem but as other workers followed the DHSS example the issue subsided.
In January 1992 an IRA bomb killed eight Protestant workers who 11 were travelling in a van through Teebane Crossroads in Mid-Ulster. The Militant led Mid-Ulster Trades Council organised a local general strike in protest. Thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers came out in support and mass rallies were held in two local towns, Cookstown and Magherafelt.
Soon after UDA killers entered a bookies’ office on Belfast’s Ormeau Road and sprayed those inside with indiscriminate gunfire. Five people died. With the example of the Mid-Ulster general strike fresh in mind, pressure was placed on the trade union leaders who organised a protest in Belfast city centre. At least 20,000 turned out.
Early in October 1993 loyalists shot a Catholic who worked on a contract basis for the Shorts aircraft factory. Again largely on the initiative of Militant members over 1,000 Shorts workers walked out to attend a protest rally at the entrance to the Harbour industrial estate, only yards from where the killing took place.
Days later, on 10 October, when ten people died in the botched IRA bomb attack on a fishmonger’s shop on the Shankill Road, Shorts and shipyard workers, including those Catholics on site, walked across Belfast to the pile of debris where this atrocity had taken place. The fact that the earlier protest, in which Protestants had come out against the killing of a Catholic, had taken place, helped maintain unity.
One week later when the UDA hit back gunning down seven people in a bar in Greysteel, Co. Derry. Militant Labour, along with other trade union activists, mounted pressure for trade union action. When the trade union leaders called a day of protest in November some 75,000 took part in lunchtime rallies right across the North. Had a call been issued for a one day general strike the turnout would have been even greater. Each of these mobilisations was decisive in cutting across the tit-for-tat killings and atrocities of the time and in each case it was actions largely initiated by Militant members which started the protests off.
These examples show the potential which has existed – and which still exists – for class unity. Had the trade union leaders followed the anti-sectarian rallies with ongoing mass action, the campaigns of the paramilitaries would have been forced to a halt much earlier.
Militant Labour demanded ongoing action, including a one-day general strike and the setting up through trade union and community organisations of anti-sectarian committees to counter sectarian intimidation and violence both in workplaces and estates.
The union leaders preferred inaction. Instead of a follow up they meekly called on the government and the politicians to come up with a solution. This strategy of relying on the Tories and politicians plus the spectacle of representatives of employer’s organisations on the platforms of the mass anti-sectarian rallies positively repelled many workers.
What was needed was independent action, including political action to unite the working class against the bigots and against the bosses. Militant Labour (now the Socialist Party) raised the call for the building of a trade union based socialist Labour party to provide a political alternative around which workers could organise and unite.
The likely establishment of a local Assembly gives a new meaning to this call. Now more than ever workers need a political voice to put forward their solution, as opposed to the sectarian answers of the unionists and nationalists.
On the local councils, the Unionists, SDLP, Alliance and DUP faithfully do the bidding of the Tory government. Sinn Fein have provided no real opposition either. Services have been privatised, jobs and conditions cut. When these same people get their hands on health, education, housing and local civil service functions, there is no reason to believe they will not do likewise.
A conference of trade unions and Trades Councils, with rank and file representation from union branches and shop steward’s bodies, from bona fide working class community organisations and from socialist groups, should be called to found a campaigning socialist Labour party.
Such a party could campaign outside, and should it win seats, inside an Assembly demanding that its powers should be used to scrap the health Trusts, restore the Housing Executive’s direct labour system, abolish the Tories’ new test system in primary education, pay adequate grants students and scrap the loan system and bring the electricity service and ail other privatised concerns back into public ownership. It could organise opposition to water privatisation, including a mass non-payment campaign should this measure go ahead.
These demands plus campaigns for jobs for all, for an adequate minimum wage, for a cut in the working week with no loss in pay to create jobs, for the expansion of all public services to meet need, would gain overwhelming support among the working class and even big sections of the middle class.
The capitalists and their political backers would reply that society cannot afford these things. It is true that their society cannot provide everyone with a job and a reasonably secure future. It can afford to hand over tens of millions to foreign capitalists to draw them to Northern Ireland. It can afford to spend billions on armaments and weapons of mass destruction. But it cannot provide health care free to every citizen.
In the hands of the working class
It is the working class who cannot afford this society. The alternative is a society in which the wealth, and the control over that wealth is in the hands of the people, not of a few profiteers. Big industries, insurance companies and banks should be taken into public ownership and run, not by rich directors or bureaucrats, but by elected boards with majority representation from the trade unions including people elected directly by the workforce in that industry. In this way the working class could determine that the wealth they produce is used for the benefit of the whole of society.
If this programme were put forward and fought for by the trade union leaders in launching a new political force the monopoly of politics enjoyed by sectarians and Tories could be broken. The current union leadership, dominated by a bloc of right wing and extremely conservative officials, prefer to remain in the political shadows and use every bureaucratic restriction to prevent politics being discussed by the rank and file.
The struggle for the building of a mass socialist party is; therefore also a struggle to democratise and transform the unions. Union leaders with their large salaries – the highest paid General Secretary in Britain now earns £70,000 a year – and pampered life styles are far removed from the problems faced by their membership. Full lime officials must be made accountable. Just as shop stewards and rank and file positions are regularly elected, so full lime officials should be subject to annual re-election. The days when their pay is closer to that of the management they with than that of their members, should end. They should receive the same wages as those they represent with expenses properly audited to ensure that only incurred expenditure is paid out.
Similarly within a socialist Labour party the rank and file would need to ensure that its public representatives steer clear of the political gravy train which sucks in the careerists of all other parties. Militant Labour has established a tradition whereby all its members standing for public office pledge to live on an average worker’s wage and to donate the rest of their salaries to the working class movement. This should be the norm for working class political organisations as the only guarantee that their leaders don’t end up like Tony Blair of British Labour or Irish Labour’s Dick Spring, indistinguishable in life-style and political ideas from their counterparts in the capitalist parties.
In this way the working class can not only build, but can take control of its own organisations and ensure that they remain as fighting instruments dedicated to creating a socialist society. The role of Militant Labour within a new socialist Labour party would be to fight to ensure that there was no backsliding from socialist ideas and determined struggle. With these ideas and with organisations built around them the entire situation in Northern Ireland could be transformed – workers’ unity, not sectarian division, could become the dominant feature of society.
Some will say, all this is fine but that when issues such as discrimination, repression and especially the border are raised, it will be everybody back to their respective sectarian bunkers. True, Protestant and Catholic working class people have tended to be polarised on these issues and, true also, this polarisation has increased dramatically over the last twenty-five years. But it is not true that any unity built between workers will come to pieces when such questions come up. The critical issue is who raises them and in what manner.
If raised by sectarians they will certainly prove divisive. However this is in itself reason enough for the labour movement to take them up. Silence by the labour movement does not mean that these issues go away. It simply leaves the field clear to others to raise them in a sectarian manner. This has been the painful lesson of the last twenty-five years.
If socialists are to break the influence of sectarians among the working class they must not restrict themselves to economic, bread and butter struggles. They must be the champions of all freedoms; freedom from poverty and want, yes, but also freedom from oppression, from discrimination, freedom of speech and association, freedom of religious, cultural and national aspirations.
The only rights which the working class have any interest in removing are the rights of the bosses and their agents to exploit, divide and repress. It is in the interests of the working class as a whole to uphold and defend the rights of all minorities, whether national, cultural, racial, sexual or religious and to combat ignorance, bigotry and prejudice in all its manifestations.
Explained and campaigned upon in this manner the seemingly difficult and divisive issues which the labour movement in Northern Ireland has tended to avoid can in fact cement working class unity.
The old system of crude and blatant discrimination built up by Unionist politicians and employers which effectively excluded Catholics from many employments has largely been dismantled, although its shadow lingers in the form of still higher Catholic unemployment.
The government’s answer is to attempt to press employers to balance up the Protestant/ Catholic ratio in workplaces and to issue regular figures showing the results. This, and the system of quotas favoured by some, inevitably causes resentment as Protestants feel less favoured, or feel that they are further up the line when redundancies come. All this amounts to is a reshuffling of a declining number of jobs between Catholics and Protestants.
Militant Labour strenuously opposes the use of religion as a criteria either in recruitment or promotion. Quotas might mean less imbalance but they do not mean more jobs. The real answer, while combating discrimination, is to fight for jobs for all.
At present the allocations of public services are decided by unelected bureaucrats accountable only to the government ministers who control the purse strings. The Tory answer to accountability is to privatise so that the god of money will decide where resources go and who gets what.
The health, education and housing services should be democratised. Even if transferred to the remit of an Assembly, their day to day running should be in the hands of elected boards on which a two thirds majority is given to representatives of the trade unions and the working class community organisations. Through such control the working class could ensure that these resources are properly and fairly allocated, that there is no discrimination and that minority interests are catered for.
Throughout the Troubles the issue of state repression has been regarded as taboo by the right-wing leaders of the trade unions and labour movement. Claiming repression is too difficult a subject to raise without dividing their members they have instead tended to support the police and army.
The result has been to cut them off from working class areas. First, by remaining silent on the brutal methods used to try to cow Catholic working class areas, they made themselves at best irrelevant to these communities. Then, when similar methods were used at times in Protestant areas they were in no position to speak out. It was republican and loyalist groups who benefited by appearing to be the only people prepared to stand up to state harassment. A policy of silence under the excuse of maintaining the unity of the labour movement only contributed to the division of the working class.
Militant Labour by contrast, have shown that it is possible to combat repression and to do so in a class fashion which unites, not divides the working class. 50 Militant Labour members have successfully moved motions in trade union branches and conferences in front of audiences of Protestant and Catholic, on issues such as the Birmingham 6, the Guildford 4, the Armagh (or UDR) 4, the Beechmount 5, plastic bullets, supergrasses, the hunger strikes and many other questions.
In raising these issues Militant has always argued that repressive methods used exclusively against either republicans or loyalists are likely to be retained for future use against the working class when it moves into struggle. The excuse used by the state to justify repression is that under emergency conditions the luxury of democratic rights cannot be afforded. The reality is that emergency or special measures tend to be retained by the capitalist state long after the situation which provided the pretext for their introduction has passed.
Past excuses for the suspension of democratic rights have been shredded by the IRA and loyalist ceasefires. The labour movement must now campaign forcefully to see that the entire apparatus of repression built up over 21 years is dismantled.
All repressive legislation – passed by Westminster and the Southern Dail – should be repealed. A labour movement inquiry into the methods used by the state over twenty five years should set out to reveal the truth about the dirty tricks employed by the state, including the shoot to kill policy and links between sections of the state and loyalist paramilitaries. Exposing these methods would make it more difficult to use them in future.
The IRA campaign has been called off with no firm deal on the prisoners. A phased release will probably be begun but their fate now is at the whim of the Tory government. The labour movement should demand the immediate release of those convicted for offences arising out of the Troubles. The only exceptions must be those who have committed sectarian crimes and whose motivation was blatantly sectarian and in no way political. A labour movement review of the cases of all prisoners could establish whose case the working class should take up. All prisoners held in British prisons should immediately be transferred back to the North. It is the families who suffer the hardship and financial burden of this situation and there is no justification for its continuation.
The army were always an instrument of repression, not of defence of either section of the working class. The military installations which dot the landscape – one for every 500 people in South Armagh – and which offer more harassment, not more protection, should be closed clown. The army itself should be withdrawn.
Instead the labour movement must be ready to respond to any sectarian attacks, any more killings, with mass protest action and the setting up of defence committees to mobilise working class areas to jointly provide their own defence.
The RUC is seen by Catholics as a sectarian force and remains unacceptable in Catholic working class areas. Its heavy-handed tactics in Protestant areas have also caused resentment and alienated a significant section of the population.
The paramilitary alternative of kneecappings, breaking limbs and other forms of summary ‘justice’ are not acceptable. It means that people’s fate is decided in secret by unaccountable people, and punishment is carried out without any right of redress.
Instead the labour movement should campaign for the establishment of genuine community police forces under the democratic control of policing committees elected from the trade unions and community organisations, and with all appointments vetted to exclude sectarians of all hues.
The national question
There is no denying that the national question is the most divisive, most difficult issue of ail. The two communities, and the two sections of the working class tend to look in two different directions on this issue.
This has not been because unity is impossible on the issue, but because the limited choices which have been raised in the past have alienated one or other community.
The maintenance of the existing link with Britain, or worse the setting up of an independent Ulster, are unacceptable choices for Catholics, especially for the Catholic working class.
On the other hand Protestants will not put their heads into what they see as the green noose of a capitalist united Ireland. They fear that they would end up being underdogs just as the Catholics were underdogs in the state ruled by the Unionist elite.
Protestant workers are justified in their fears. Just as the British ruling class in the past played the orange card – and may do so again in the future if faced with the threat of socialism – so their Southern Irish counterparts have not hesitated to use the green card, as a section of them did in 1969, to the same end of dividing the working class. In a capitalist united Ireland they would be quite prepared to whip up anti-protestant feeling if they felt this would keep the working class apart and preserve their rule.
Since partition the leaders of the labour movement in Ireland and Britain have tended only to see these capitalist choices. With only these on offer it is not surprising that this issue tends to divide workers. Socialists should reject all these alternatives – the status quo, Ulster independence and a capitalist united Ireland – with equal forcefulness.
The way to resolve the national problem is through the building of class unity in the North, unity with the working class in Britain and with the working class in the South, and the brining together as far as is possible, the struggle for socialism throughout these islands.
The working class in the South can best assist this unity by breaking its organisations out of the embrace of coalition with the capitalist parties, whether Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, and fighting independently for socialism. Likewise the best help the British working class can give is to shake up the labour movement in Britain and fight to overthrow British capitalism.
Paisley is threatening a unionist forum to unite all unionist groups. This is in response to the nationalist Forum for Peace and Reconciliation set up by Reynolds. The working class organisations, North and South and in Britain should have no truck with these unionist and nationalist blocs. Instead they should set up a ‘Labour Movement Forum’ to draw together all the organisations of the working class in Ireland to fight for a common solution. There is no capitalist answer to the national problem. The only solution is the overthrow of capitalism, North, South and in Britain and the establishment of a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland, entered into on a free and equal basis.
Socialism would allow for a democratic and peaceful resolution of the problem. The enemies of socialism will say no – look at what happened in Russia where the various national questions were brutally repressed, not resolved.
What existed, and what failed, in Russia and Eastern Europe was Stalinism, not socialism, but what is now failing in every corner of the world is the capitalist system which delivers up only poverty, pollution, wars and devastation.
Capitalism means investment and production only for profit, not for need. Socialism means taking the resources of the world into public ownership and letting the mass of the people decide democratically how they are to be used. It would allow people’s needs to be the priority not the super-enrichment of the few. It does not mean a one party state, totalitarianism or control by privileged bureaucrats as were the hallmarks of Stalinist regimes. Rather it would involve the maximum decentralisation of power and the maximum participation of the working class, the great majority in society, in the running of society.
By scrapping the wastage of capitalism on weapons, on wars, on advertising, on building goods designed to fall apart, and by giving work to the millions made idle by this system, it would be possible to eliminate want and begin to give every human being a decent standard of living. It would also be possible to drastically cut the working week, perhaps to a few hours per day and three or four days a week, and still produce enough to satisfy human needs.
A cut in hours would give the working class the essential ingredient of time to take part in the running of society. For the first time since the break up of the earliest human societies, the majority of the people, not an elite, would be able to democratically shape their own destiny.
Even in the early stages of the building of such a society disputes and conflicts which have seemed all absorbing in the past would no longer have the same significance. Socialism in Ireland would very quickly see the passions which today surround the national question abate. A socialist society would mean that the rights of all minorities would be guaranteed, including refugees and immigrants. In Ireland this would mean the rights of all religions to practice their beliefs, but with the complete separation of church and state.
Nor could there be any question of one community or one section of the working class coercing the other to accept its will. At the start of the Troubles, Militant advocated a socialist united Ireland. Protestant and Catholic workers at that time could see that this represented something completely different from the capitalist solutions posed by Unionists and Nationalists.
While retaining this general position twenty five years of violence, especially the IRA campaign which Protestants saw as an attempt to coerce them against their will and their current fears that they are about to be ‘sold out’, require us to make a qualification.
Should Protestants remain suspicious or opposed to an all Ireland state, even on a socialist basis, their views would be respected. In practice this would mean their right, for so long as they wished, to opt either for maximum control over their own affairs or even for a separate socialist state. Neither autonomy for Protestants, nor a separate state are desirable, but if they become necessary, socialism would mean they could be implemented without the bloodshed or upheaval inevitable under capitalism.
Two socialist states in Ireland, should this arise, would not mean the rigid division between peoples, as would be the case with two capitalist states. Socialism means open borders and the free movement of peoples. Rather than a powerful central state, lifted above society, it means the devolution of administrative responsibility to the maximum possible extent to local communities. Nor would it mean coercing Catholics into a new Northern state against their will. Just as Protestants cannot be coerced into a united Ireland, so Catholics cannot be coerced into a majority Protestant state. The resulting rearrangement of boundaries might be cumbersome but, on the basis of socialism, it would be possible and could be arrived at peacefully and democratically.
However this is not the best option. Protestant and Catholic working class people in Northern Ireland have far more in common than divides them. Far better that workers’ unity is built in the North and between workers North and South to tear down capitalism and all its political vestiges and build one socialist society in Ireland, than to go down the road of continued separation by religion and of two states.
The future development of a united class movement, which would rush sectarian tensions to the background will likely mean that Protestant objections to a single socialist state would disappear – but in order to build this class unity it is now necessary to guarantee the Protestant working class their right, should they wish to exercise it, to opt out.
The Socialist Party (formerly the Militant Labour) is a socialist organisation which is active and has support in both Catholic and Protestant working class areas and which is struggling to build support for these ideas. It was formed at the beginning of 1993 through the merger of Militant, the Labour and Trade Union Group and the Young Socialists into one organisation. In 1997 the name was changed to the Socialist Party, and we had a TD (MP), Joe Higgins elected to the Southern Dail. He is still a sitting TD fro the working class constituency of Dublin West. In line with our public representative rules, Joe only draws an average workers’ wage, the rest of his salary being donated to various campaigns.
Part of a worldwide revolutionary socialist International (the Committee for a Workers’ International – CWI) which has a base in over 35 countries, and on every continent, the Socialist Party is the most dynamic socialist force in Ireland.
For more than twenty years we have correctly analysed the situation and have consistently argued, against what at times seemed overwhelming odds, for working class unity and socialism as the only way forward. Unlike the leaders of the labour movement who preached reliance on the capitalist state to solve the problem, we argued that the working class, as the people who suffered the effects of the Troubles, were the only force that could solve them.
Unlike other left groups, who, when it was fashionable in Britain and in Catholic areas of the North to back the IRA acting as unofficial cheerleaders for the Provisionals, we explained more than twenty years ago that the IRA campaign would not succeed. A headline in the first ever issue of Irish Militant, published at the time of Bloody Sunday in January 1972 ran ‘Provisional IRA Strategy Will Not Defeat Imperialism’.
Our ideas have stood the test of time. The back page headline of that same issue ran ‘One Answer – Workers Unity’. That was true then and it is true today. The difference is that in 1972 the prospects for the immediate building of a united working class movement were quite slender and were shrinking.
With the ending of the IRA campaign and with the UDA and UVF ceasefires, a new situation has opened. There is now real scope for the ideas of mass struggle as opposed to individual terrorism, class unity as opposed to sectarianism. By joining and helping to build the Socialist Party those who agree with the ideas put forward in this booklet can help transform them from words on a page into a mass force of workers and youth struggling to change society.
- Boulton, The UVF 1966-73, Torc Books, 1973
- Bruce, The Red Hand, Oxford University Press, 1992
- James Connolly, Labour in Irish History, New Book Publications, 1971
- Terry Cradden, Trade Unionism, Socialism and Partition, December Publications, 1993
- Liam De Paor, Divided Ulster, Pelican,1971
- Paddy Devlin, “Yes We Have No Bananas”: Qutdoor Relief in Belfast 1920-39, Blackstaff, 1981
- Paddy Devlin, Straight Left, Blackstaff Press, 1993
- Michael Farrell, The Orange State, Pluto Press, 1976
- Desmond Greaves, ‘The Irish Transport and Central Workers’ Union’: The Formative Years 1909-23, Gill and MacMillan, 1982
- Desmond Greaves, Life and Times of James Connolly, Lawrence and Wishart, 1986
- Peter Hadden, Divide and Rule, Militant, 1980
- T A Jackson, Ireland Her Own, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971
- E McCann, War and an Irish Town, Penguin, 1974
- Mitchell, Labour in Irish Politics 1880-1930, Irish University Press, 1974
- E Moloney & A Pollock, Paisley, Poolbeg, 1986
- A Morgan, Labour and Partition, Pluto Press, 1991
- O’Brien, The Long War, O’Brien Press, 1993
- Richard Venton and Peter Hadden, Socialism or Sectarianism, Militant Publications, 1989
Peter Hadden is the north’s foremost Marxist writer, and has been active in the Northern Ireland labour and trade union movement since the start of the troubles. Throughout this time he has written extensively about the situation, contributing regularly toSocialist Voice, newspaper of the Socialist Party in Ireland, and The Socialist in Britain.
Among others, his works include Common Misery, Common Struggle, a Labour and Trade Union Group pamphlet, and Divide and Rule, an analysis of the partition of Ireland.
Peter Hadden is the the Northern Ireland Secretary of the Socialist Party in Ireland.