Northern Ireland: TU’s must fight internment
Militant 3rd September 1971
Since Mr Heath cast his decisive vote nearly 30 working class people have died in some of the worst and most widespread rioting that Ulster has witnessed at any time in its stormy history. In the Catholic ghettoes of Belfast and Derry, as well as many Catholic towns and villages, the people have expressed their indignation at the arrests of 300 of their neighbours and relatives by taking to the streets and putting up the barricades determined that ‘not one more shall be lifted.’
Whatever glossy shine the Unionist Government ever had is now gone. All attempts at ‘progressive reform,’ at easing the country gently out of an unpleasant situation, now lie is ashes. For the fourth time in 50 years the Government has had to resort to internment, As the detainees were hauled none too gently out of their beds and placed behind bars Faulkner explained that the use of the Special Powers Act was ‘..in this case. Not to suppress but to ‘uphold’ freedom.’ This it does through the right to impose curfews, ban public meetings and parades, close public thoroughfares, examine bank accounts and suspend inquests. Under its provisions it is possible to intern anyone suspected of ‘..acting or being about to act in a manner prejudicial to the preservation of peace.’
The era of soft peddling, it seems is over. The Army is now used against eh ghetto populations with greater ferocity than ever. The new language of the troops is spelt out in terms of more powerful CS gas, rubber bullets with a greater velocity and, according to accounts of their tactics in the Falls Road, rubber bullets tipped with pins and coins, capable of causing severe and lasting damage to any victim. To ‘rioters’ General Tuzo has issued the warning that the new ‘get tough’ tactics will include the shooting not only of those who throw petrol bombs, but also of anyone who ‘appears likely to do so.’
The full severity of this repressive policy has been camouflaged by a smokescreen of lies and fabrications. But some facts cannot be covered up. In the case of the shooting of Harry Thornton, no amount of hedging could ever explain why ‘two dangerous gunmen’ should pull up at traffic lights and wait to be shot. William McKavanagh was described by the Army as a sniper after he was killed in the Markets area. The real crime for which he died was simply not stopping when challenged by a soldier. And then Eamon McDevitt, a deaf mute from Strabane, was killed by a soldier who claims that from 60 yards he was able to see that he was holding a revolver in his hand – in fact, it was a rubber bullet according to nearly 30 eyewitness accounts. Incidents such as these are rapidly earning the British troops a reputation among Catholics similar to that of the infamous Black and Tans.
Threat of Protestant Backlash
Repression is the context of escalating violence spells out new and even greater dangers. Internment has only been used as a final resort. It has been made necessary by the daily loss of Unionist support to the Paisleyites and by the threatened rebellions from Craig, Taylor and other right wing members of the Unionist Party and Cabinet. Until recently all seemed set for a repeat of past performances as the ‘moderate’ Faulkner fast followed the path of his two predecessors. Only this time there are no more ‘moderates.’ The ruling class has raked the pile and come up with nothing. Rather than face the prospect of a right wing Protestant government and have to resort to direct rule, Faulkner has been launched on a new course of appeasement of his right wing.
Provisionals Reinforce Sectarianism
But no one has been appeased. Temporarily the unionists have strengthened their position, but no ones problems have been solved. Instead, the most dangerous situation which the Province has ever had to face has been created. 8,000 Belfast people left their homes during the riots.
Many of these will never return because of fear of the intimidation which is continuing in many areas. Certainly the Protestants who burned their homes in the Ardoyne, rather than see them taken over by Catholics, will never. In the space of a few days the split in the working class has been deepened desperately. At present, as many of the Provinces ‘mixed’ areas become either solid Orange of solid Green, the battle lines are once again being drawn and the scene set for a new and even grander confrontation.
Internment must be fought, but it must be fought with these dangers in mind. However, from the Provisional IRA we are already seeing a continuation of the campaign of explosions and. As Joe Cahill put it, of ‘ambushing and sniping.’ These methods, especially their campaign against Protestant property, will only make the situation 100 times worse, just as any campaign they may launch in England would only serve to isolate the Irish in that country from their English workmates.
The Provisional Leadership as shown itself incapable of consolidating any political movement. Already, in the fight against internment, they have been sidestepped. In the few weeks since internment was introduced we have seen the magnificent solidarity of the Catholic workers of Derry, Strabane, Dungannon and a series of other towns in the withholding of rent and the strikes against the Government. Despite all the Sceptics and cynics these events show the willingness of workers o struggle in defence of their rights. But to be successful the present struggle must be converted from a Catholic struggle into one of the working class as a whole. If it is not, all present efforts will be futile and will only make matters worse. Strikes where only Catholics are involved can create bitterness in the shop floor and can lead to intimidation and victimisation. No one in the leadership of the present campaign has taken the trouble to spell out these dangers and the movement has been permitted to become sectarian.
Internment: A class issue
Internment is not a religious but a class issue. The criterion by which internees are arrested is not their religion, but the extent to which they threaten the ruling class. Brian Faulkner when introducing the measure spelt this out. ‘They (the IRA) are the main threat but we will not hesitate to take strong action against any other individuals or organisation who present such a threat in the future.’ Today it is the Catholics who present the problem. Tomorrow it may be members of the Protestant nuisance groups and the day after it will be members of the Labour Movement. Even at the moment it is clearly not the IRA who have been the main target. Instead it has largely been members of the left wing opposition to the regime, dangerous ‘terrorists’ such as Michael Farrell who have been interned. This is a grave warning of the manner in which this measure will be used in the coming period.
The Labour and Trade Union Movement must take note of this. At present they are the only non-sectarian movement in the country. They are the only body capable of converting the present struggle into a class struggle against the Tory Government. Tragically for every working class person in Ulster, the leaders of this movement have miserably attempted to abdicate their responsibility by folding their arms and turning their backs upon the situation. The blame for the sectarian nature of the recent strikes does not lie with the workers who supported them. The criminal responsibility for this lies with the ICTU and with Vic Feather, who together refused to make these official.
At eh NILP Conference the promise was made by David Bleakly that if the Unionists were to go back on their reform programme he would resign his position as Minister of Community Relations. From his recent silence on the subject of internment we can only consider that he considers this to be another ‘progressive reform.’ The only boast that members of the NIP can now have is that theirs is the only political party to have no stated position on internment. Even Paisley was able to oppose the measure while the leadership of the Labour Movement remained in abject silence.
All this has had a terrible effect on the whole Labour Movement. For every Labour Party member who now leaves the party in disgust, countless voters and potential voters have been lost. However, to leave the party now would be a grave error. The rank and file of the Labour Movement must, instead, fight in every local party, in every TU branch, for an end to the present vacillation and coalitionist approach, and call for the movement to assume its rightful place at the head of the movement against internment. As the working class is living more and more behind separate religious banners, the real grievances remain.
Not one of the economic problems have been solved. Unemployment now stands at its highest for 19 years. Before the government ban on parades the ICTU had planned to hold a demonstration on November 6th against unemployment. There must be no backsliding from the leadership now. That demonstration must take place as planned. The struggle against internment goes hand in hand with that for decent conditions and for bringing down the Tory Government and the oppressive regime it represents, and for the return of a Labour Government pledged to socialist policies.
Labour Movement must act
On the basis of such a fighting campaign sectarianism could be swept away into the annals of history, never to raise its head again. In the present time of grave crisis these are the demands which must be heard from every corner of the Labour Movement.
Militant, 3rd Sept. 1971