MEANWHILE, A drama was beginning to unfold in Northern Ireland which would rumble on for more than 25 years.
Up to the late 1960s Militant had no support outside of Britain. Fortunately, Paul Jones from Derry was won to Militant’s ideas while he was studying in London just before the outbreak of the "Troubles".
When he returned to Ireland, this led to an invitation to me to visit Derry in 1969, which was followed by a visit to Dublin to discuss with some old Trotskyists as well as a new layer of youth who had come to the fore within the Irish Labour Party youth section.
Even Northern Ireland was affected by the radical wave which swept the world in 1968. Naturally this affected the younger generation more. The Civil Rights Movement arose from the changed situation in Northern Ireland and was heavily influenced by the movement internationally. And it was Protestant youth, just as much as their Catholic counterparts, who moved in a radicalised direction. Thus only a minority of the students at Queen’s University, Belfast, a hotbed of the civil rights movement, came from Catholic backgrounds.
Yet three-quarters of the students supported the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, Bernadette Devlin, on the basis of an astounding 90 per cent turnout, won a parliamentary by-election in Mid-Ulster in April 1969 with the votes of an estimated 6,000 Protestant workers and farmers. However, sectarian divisions between Catholics and Protestants while they had softened amongst a new generation, were played upon by Ian Paisley and the Unionist leaders. A civil rights movement, which appealed on a class and socialist programme to Protestants as well as to Catholics, could have decisively changed Northern Ireland at that time.
Instead, the newly emerging Catholic middle class, typified by John Hume in Derry, bent all their efforts to direct the civil rights movement to achieving "equality" for the Catholics. On the basis of diseased British capitalism, sharply expressed in the much worse social conditions in Northern Ireland, this could only mean a programme of "sharing out the misery".
This in turn would naturally be seen by the Protestant population as taking from them to give to the Catholics. Only by opening up an entirely different economic vista, the socialist transformation of society, and linking this to the day-to-day struggle of all workers, would it have been possible to unify Catholic and Protestants together in the struggle against the Unionist hierarchy and British big business.
Out of this movement Militant was able to win some important figures who were to play a leading role in the Irish labour movement, North and South. John Throne was from a Protestant background (his father had been the head of the Orange Order in Donegal) but had become a socialist and was involved, in a prominent position, in the Civil Rights struggle in the Bogside Defence Association and the Northern Ireland Labour Party in Derry, being chair of the Young Socialists.
After a process of intensive discussions and working together with Militant supporters, he committed himself to Militant. He played a key role, in building the influence of Militant in the North and later in the South, at one time serving on the Executive Committee of the Southern Irish Labour Party and although no longer in Ireland continues to play an important role today.
Peter Hadden, had already committed himself to Militant while still a student at Sussex University. When he returned to Northern Ireland in 1971 he played a vital role both theoretically and organisationally in maintaining the thread of Marxist ideas, in some of the most difficult conditions for Marxists anywhere in the world. Others like Gerry Lynch, Bill Webster, Manus Maguire and many others too numerous to mention also made a big contribution to building a powerful Marxist presence around Militant, later Militant Irish Monthly.
There were determined efforts made in this direction by the small forces of socialism and Marxism that had begun to gather support amongst the youth and more advanced workers. The Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists became a focal point for Protestant and Catholic workers and youth alike looking for a new road in opposition to the dead end of a return to the past. They were to play a crucial role, in particular in the August 1969 confrontations and in the early 1970s.
Militant opposes troops being sent
Militant’s analysis of the situation has stood the test of time like no other group. Thus, when British troops intervened in 1969 Militant opposed this. These troops had been sent in by the Labour Home Secretary, James Callaghan, encouraged by some like Bernadette Devlin (later McAllisky) who later on opposed the troops and moved to a Republican position. In the September 1969 issue our front-page read:
The article pointed out:
At bottom, the uprising in Derry was against the system itself, the lengthening dole queues, the worst housing in Britain, and misery on a mass scale. This anger against the capitalist system erupted in the insurrection - and that is what it undoubtedly was - against the attempts of their traditional enemies, the police, to unleash another reign of terror amongst the Bogside workers.1
Dealing with the events in Belfast, which were far more vicious and bloody, we commented:
Pointing to the events in Derry, Militant explained that
Militant sought to realistically appraise the situation which confronted the Catholic population during the siege:
The ruling class feared the political upheavals, destruction of property and the political vacuum which would have been created if civil war had followed:
Derry "Barricades Bulletin"
The extracts printed in the same issue of the paper from the Barricades Bulletin, the daily news-sheet of the Derry Labour Party, showed the clear class instincts of the best of the workers.
The barricades must stay up until we are sure we are all safe from state-controlled terror or victimisation. We are not defending the social conditions of the people in the area, the low wages, unemployment, bad housing, etc. In fact, the greatest part of our fight is the fight against these conditions.
Just because barricades have to be erected around the Catholic area of Bogside doesn’t mean we believe in Catholic power, this would provide no solution to our problems. People in Protestant areas have a perfect right to defend themselves if they feel they are going to be attacked by Catholic bigots... What is needed is to build a party that can defeat the Unionist government, this would need to be a Labour Party with massive trade union backing... Working-class unity in a Labour Party on this programme will provide the only real and lasting solution to the rule of sectarian terror and the terrorist rule of rent, profit and interest. (8)
Pointing to the solution, the Bulletin declared:
Militant went further in advocating
In fact, peace committees developed on quite a wide scale in East Belfast in reaction to the sectarian terror that stalked the city. Moreover, the Northern Ireland Labour Party attracted the support of Catholics and Protestants looking for a way out; it got 100,000 votes in the 1970 general election.
It was not just the British capitalists but their Southern Irish counterparts who took fright at the socialist trend which seemed to influence the movement in the North. They bent all their efforts to derail the movement. They were presented with this opportunity by the complete unpreparedness of the IRA in the North to fulfil their role as traditional defenders of the Catholic population.
Under the influence of the Communist Party, the leadership of the IRA, Cathal Goulding and co, had decided to move in a more ‘political’ direction than the IRA traditionalists liked even selling their weapons. Their incapacity to defend the Catholic population of Belfast in particular in August 1969 led to the appearance on Belfast walls of graffiti; "IRA - I Ran Away". This led to a split in Sinn Fein and the IRA, resulting in the formation of the ‘Provisionals’.
The character of the new Provisional IRA was made clear in Sinn Fein’s journal An Phoblacht. It denounced "Cuban-style commune politics" and "doctrinaire socialism".
Even as the Provisionals were in the process of formation, Militant criticised its perspective for military action as a means of driving the British army out of Northern Ireland. It pointed out that British imperialism, unlike in 1920 at the time of partition, would have liked to withdraw from Northern Ireland.
However, to have done so under conditions then existing would almost certainly have resulted in a sectarian civil war. In such a conflict, it was likely the Catholics in the North would be driven out to the South. The Irish army would have been incapable of preventing this, as they were probably materially weaker than a potential armed Protestant force in the North.
All the parallels drawn by the Provisional IRA leadership (let alone the British political groups who clung to their coat-tails) with the struggle in the former colonial and semi-colonial world, were erroneous. In Algeria, for instance, the French settlers or ‘colons’, accounted for no more than ten per cent of the population.
A war of national liberation was successful in forcing the withdrawal of French imperialism. The settlers also fled, most of them to France. In the past, however, even the ‘colons’ had been open to the ideas of socialism and ‘communism’. They could have been won to the struggle for national liberation if it had been conducted on a class and socialist basis, rather than the nationalist approach of the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front).
In Northern Ireland the so-called ‘colons’ or ‘settlers’ were two-thirds of the population! One million people were killed in Algeria. How many would it take before the policies of the Provisionals were shown to be inappropriate?
Twenty-five years later, in the Downing Street declaration of December 1994, British imperialism stated - and the Provisionals have now accepted this - that they have no "strategic or selfish interests" in Northern Ireland. The Provisional leadership now in effect accepts what Militant has always argued, that it is not British imperialism but the opposition of the 1.5 million-strong Protestant majority of Northern Ireland which opposes forced incorporation into a capitalist united Ireland.
Militant, and later our Irish co-thinkers around what was originally called Militant Irish Monthly and now Militant Labour (in the North) and Militant (in the South), alone argued consistently for this position over the last 25 years. At the same time, Militant argued for a class and socialist alternative. In the changed situation, both North and South of the border, a real viable alternative for the working class in both parts of Ireland can emerge.