Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review

From barricades to ballots

The Irish struggle seems to so many to have reached an impasse. The hopes of those who built the civil rights movement a generation ago have not been fulfilled. Kieran Allen explains why

Socialists at the forefront of organising the first civil rights march in October 1968
Socialists at the forefront of organising the first civil rights march in October 1968

On 5 October 1968 a few hundred demonstrators assembled in the mainly Protestant area of the Waterside in Derry. They carried placards such as 'Class not Creed' to promote their demand for civil rights. Their demonstration had been banned by the Unionist government. Marching into the walled city of Deny was a privilege that was bestowed mainly on the Orange Order.

When the march reached Duke Street, two double lines of police drew their batons and laid into the marchers. Across the world's TV stations a resounding image appeared of a middle aged man crying out, 'For God's sake, man...' and then crumpling up in pain from a police attack.

Word of the attacks spread throughout the city. For the next few nights barricades were erected. The Molotov cocktail which had featured prominently in the street battles throughout Europe in 1968 made its appearance in Derry. Police in armoured cars fought to drive the people back into the Catholic ghettoes. But what had taken place was not just a riot but the start of an uprising that was to shake the very foundations of the Northern Ireland state.

The grievances that underlay the Civil Rights march were many. Derry, like many Northern towns, had a unique voting system in local elections. Rich businessmen could get as many as 25 votes while the unemployed had no vote. The city council elections were 'gerrymandered' to ensure a Unionist majority in a predominantly Catholic town.

Derry was a microcosm of Northern Ireland as a whole. Here was an artificial state designed to ensure a permanent Unionist majority. Only one opposition bill has ever been accepted in the Stormont parliament in the 50 years of its existence--the Wild Bird Conservation Bill. Every prime minister had been a member of the Orange Order. So too had tens of thousands of Protestant workers. The organisation provided a network that promised access to jobs and houses ahead of Catholics. An old refrain summarised its social function:

These structures were mirrored in a cheaper, hand me down version on the Catholic side. Locked out from any participation in the state, the Catholic elite organised themselves through their church. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, which James Connolly had dubbed 'The Pope's Brass Band', could still turn out crowds for its parades. Catholic priests often picked the Nationalist candidates who went forward for electoral office. The oppression of Catholics created a longing for rebellion but it also helped right wing bigots to claim a right to represent 'their community'.

By the late 1960s, the stability of the North began to be undermined by developments within capitalism itself. For most of its existence the bigotry and sectarianism of Northern Ireland was rarely mentioned in the House of Commons. Both the Tories and the Labour Party were content to leave the Unionist Party to their own devices. After 1958 the South opened itself out to multinational investment, and for a period Britain represented a major proportion of foreign capital.

The sectarian structures of the North became an obstacle to a rapprochment between the British and Southern ruling classes. Pressure mounted on Northern Ireland's prime minister Terence O'Neill to 'modernise' his regime. O'Neill set about the task with all the enthusiasm of a dinosaur awaking to the 20th century.

The formation of the Civil Rights movement ensured that O'Neill and the modernisers could no longer dictate the pace of change. The movement drew its inspiration from a wave of international revolt.

However, within a week of the original march in Derry, two distinct wings of the movement had crystalised..A Citizen's Action Committee led by factory manager, Ivan Cooper and John Hume was formed. It brought together the leading Catholic businessmen, teachers, priests and solicitors of Derry. It aimed at using the anger of the masses to create new openings for the Catholic middle class within the Northern state. To pull this off, however, it needed to head off the militant protests and reach an accommodation with O'Neill. Within weeks it was attacking the 'hooligans' and the 'ultra left'.

On 8 October People's Democracy was formed. This organised the left of the movement and according to its founder, Michael Farrell, was 'inspired by the Sorbonne Assembly and by the concepts of libertarianism as well as socialism.' For over a year the PD, alongside those who were grouped around Eamonn McCann and the Derry Labour Party, were the most active force in preventing the Catholic middle class coming to an accommodation with O'Neill. In the election in 1969, its candidates won 23,000 votes compared to 44,000 for the Nationalist Party. For a period, it looked like it could lay the basis for a mass revolutionary force throughout Ireland.

The PD stood for direct action. Sit-ins, invasions of council chambers, provocations of the police became their stock and trade. When the civil rights leadership called a truce with O'Neill late in 1968, the PD organised a Belfast to Derry march to expose the sectarianism and thuggery of the RUC. The attack on their march at Burntollet in December 1968, more than served this purpose.

But PD also sought to link this militancy with a clear appeal to the Protestant working class. They were not just for more jobs for Catholics and less jobs for Protestants--but better conditions for all workers. According to Bernadette Devlin, 'the basis on which we can communicate with the Protestants is by being honestly socialist.' Sometimes the PD's agitation was successful. In Armagh, for example, the PD led a joint demonstration of Catholic and Protestant tenants to the council in opposition to a nationalist only demonstration.

PD also sought to make links with struggles in the South, though in a haphazard fashion. In April 1969, PD marchers set out from Belfast to Dublin to mock the repressive sexual restrictions of the South. One marcher presented a banned book by Edna O'Brien to the Irish Gardai while others took condoms and other contraceptives over the border. Three thousand people turned up to welcome them.

Yet there was a major weakness at the heart of PD. It was a student based organisation prone to tremendous vacillation. It moved from one stunt to another. It believed that there was a natural radicalism about the Irish population. Farrell claimed that 'the tradition of bourgeois democracy does not run deep in contrast to the tradition of armed insurrection, of revolution as a means'. PD aimed to build on this spontaneous feeling of the revolt rather than forge a party around a clear set of ideas.

But without a disciplined organisation, PD activists often combined a very general socialist rhetoric with a bowing to the pressures of their local communities.

The lack of a party organisation also meant that PD never took seriously its vision of taking the struggle to the South. No systematic attempt was made to forge links with the struggles of workers and pull together a minority who agreed with its arguments. Yet the late 1960s were the heyday of industrial militancy in the South. In 1967, for example, the South topped the world strike league.

The Achilles heel of PD was its own libertarianism and its belief in simply reflecting the spontaneous moods of struggle. Up to 1969 there was a large section of Catholic workers who wanted reforms without destroying the Northern state. The division of Ireland into two sectarian states was not seen as an issue.

Yet the dynamic of the struggle in Northern Ireland led Catholic working class youth to question the very existence of the state. The assaults of the B Specials, the RUC and later the British army taught them that there would be no civil rights until the sectarian state was smashed.

The Republicans were a tiny force in Northern Ireland in 1968--but they proclaimed constantly the age old message that the border had to go. Their vision was narrow and they sought only a communal base. Instead of direct action and mass organisation, the armed struggle became 'the cutting edge'. Instead of a class appeal to Protestant workers there was the bland nationalist demand 'that the sooner they realise [they are Irish] the better because it is only as Irish that they can ever progress as a race, as a country, as a nation'. Nevertheless their message connected with thousands who faced the bullets of the British army and the naked terror campaign of loyalist death squads. The Provos replaced the PD as the serious fighters.

But if the Provos have sustained a tough and dogged resistance for over 25 years they have not shown any way of breaking through. The only people who have gained from the struggle that began on 5 October have been the Catholic middle class. Hume and the SDLP have now become the conduit for EC grants to 'projects' organised with their allies among the Catholic clergy.

Today the struggle in Northern Ireland is reaching a crucial juncture. After Israel and the PLO reached a settlement, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, welcomed the 'courageous first steps' and claimed that 'the lesson for all of us is that a peace process is possible even in the most difficult of conflicts.' On the same day he attacked the 'fiction that Sinn Fein... is out to undermine the authority of the state'.

We are at the start of a process whereby Sinn Fein is positioning itself to follow the PLO, the ANC and FMLN and countless liberation movements whose revolt against the system is coming to a close. Whether they will be allowed to make their peace is still an open question. But of Sinn Fein's desire to accommodate themselves to an 'interim' bourgeois settlement there can be no doubt. In the last year it has come out in favour of UN intervention in the North, the sending of a US peace envoy, and 'dialogue' with the SDLP. The strategic objective of the republicans is now summarised by Martin McGuinness as the 'nationalist side getting its act together--Republicans, Dublin, the SDLP...and put it to the British government that a solution is possible.'

Nationalists who do not fight capitalism always accommodate themselves eventually to its everyday oppressions. Sinn Fein will be no different--the time scale is the only subject of uncertainty. After the demise of PD as a real force, many socialists in Northern Ireland essentially pledged their loyalty to the Provos. The voices of those who looked to mass working class struggle rather than guerrilla struggle and sought to link the fight against oppression to the class struggle of all workers became smaller. This situation can now start to change.

Developments inside the Protestant working class also indicate why the growth of socialist politics has become urgent. Today, Protestant workers are experiencing massive alienation and poverty. When the civil rights struggle began many Protestant workers thought that being 'British' meant having better wages and decent jobs compared to the workers in the rest of Ireland. Today it means having low wages and spells on the dole. A recent survey--Poverty amongst Plenty--of Protestant areas revealed that in Taughmonagh two thirds of households have an income of under £110 a week. 32 percent are out of work. In Clarawood, 51 percent of households live on less than £90 a week.

The anger at this situation can go two ways. In the last year, Belfast has seen magnificent and united demonstrations of Catholic and Protestant workers against health cuts and privatisation. But there has also been a growth of extreme right wing loyalist assasination squads and gangs who want to blame Catholics as the scapegoats for Protestant poverty. Which way the anger goes will be dependent on the level of class struggle and the growth of real forces on the socialist left.

Republicans who speak platitudes about 'recognising identities' have little to say to Protestant workers because they do not talk the language of class. Only a socialist organisation that makes it clear that it wants to smash both Irish states; that opposes oppression so as to help unite the working class; and one that reaches beyond the communal ghettoes to talk about the general interests of all workers can offer any hope.


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