Northern Ireland: The Troubles

Chapter Four


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:

Northern Ireland – For a united workers’ defence force – Withdraw British troops – Disband B-specials and police thugs – For jobs, schools, homes, take over monopolies – Catholic and Protestant workers fight for a united socialist Ireland.

The article pointed out:

The electric events in Northern Ireland have shaken to their roots the Unionist Stormont government and shocked out of its sedate calm the British ruling class… the Catholic population is no longer prepared to accept the writ of a government which rules by police and Paisleyite terror. 

Forced to defend their area of the Bogside the Catholic workers have taken over the running, policing and organisation of the area through the establishment of defence committees. At the same time – and it is this more than anything which will strike terror into the hearts of the capitalists – an increasing section have begun to see their fight not in a religious form but as a class issue… (1)

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:

With sticks and stones in Belfast, the Catholic population confronted an armed mob which bristled with rifles and machine guns. In Derry, the workers had prepared well before the August days, having learned from the bitter experiences of the past year. (2)

Events had blown up in the face of the British ruling class who in the past “by a policy of divide and rule… [had] successfully derailed the social revolution that was developing” at the time of partition. (3)

[But] such is the irony of history, the very same Unionist party installed as a bulwark against the development of united working-class action, is now, by its refusal to bend to the new pressures, threatening to unleash a process pregnant with dangers for imperialism. (4)

Pointing to the events in Derry, Militant explained that

the Bogside fought with fury against the thuggery of the police. Under heavy siege for over 50 hours, they held off the police attacks. This was despite the indiscriminate use of lethal and heavy CS gas, taken, it  is believed, from army stocks. (5)

Militant sought to realistically appraise the situation which confronted the Catholic population during the siege:

It was at this stage that they mobilised the B-specials, the Paisleyites in uniform, hated by the Catholic population. They were laden with .303 rifles, sub-machine guns and automatic weapons. A slaughter would have followed in comparison with which the bloodletting in Belfast would have paled into insignificance, if the Labour government had not intervened with British troops. But it would be fatal to think that the troops were used solely to defend the Catholic population from attack by the Paisleyites and B-specials. (6)

The ruling class feared the political upheavals, destruction of property and the political vacuum which would have been created if civil war had followed:

Sections of the workers would have learnt in action very quickly, as many Bogside workers have, to put class action first. Thus even faced with sectarian attack, the Derry Labour Party has increasingly found an eager response to the idea of appealing to the Protestant workers… As absolutely necessary as it has been to defend the area against police and Paisleyite attack, an opportunity has existed for appealing to Protestant workers.

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 in to impose a solution in the interest of British and Ulster big business. (7)

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:

No Unionist government will ever again peacefully send its police force into this area… direct rule from Westminster solves nothing. The incorporation of the six counties into the 26 would only happen via bloodshed, and would at any rate in no way help solve our economic problems – indeed, in many ways, these would get worse.

The whole system of economic and political organisation will have to be changed – both North and South. We need a movement of solidarity in the South, which fights for us by fighting against the Fianna Fail regime. Only thus can we convince the vast majority of Protestant people we are not asking them to join the Free State [i.e. the Republic] as it stands. The Bulletin ends with a call to “Smash the Unionist government! No trust in Tories! Forward to the workers’ republic!” (9)

Militant went further in advocating

common action through a joint defence committee (which) can begin to defeat the grip of Tory Unionism. The vehicle for this is the labour movement and trade unions themselves. In the heat of the August battles there were a few small signs of what could have been done if the labour movement would have given a clear class lead. 

In the Belfast Harland and Wolf shipyards a mass meeting of 9,000 workers, Protestant and Catholic, responded to an appeal to refuse to fall for sectarian slogans and divisions. A Transport and General Workers’ Union official commented to The Sunday Times: ‘The initiative came entirely from the union – none of the credit belongs to the management.’

At the same time, in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, it has been reported that sections of Protestant and Catholic workers came together to form common committees to defend their areas. (10)

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.