From International Socialism (1st series), No.92, October 1976, pp.24-27.
TWO DEMONSTRATIONS held in Limerick on the first Saturday in September encapsulated the difficult and dangerous situation facing those opposing repression and the British military presence in Ireland. A peace march, gathering nearly 3000 people, including local political and clerical dignatories, behind a banner bearing a single word, ‘Peace’, moved silently the town. The few other placards carried by marchers included one which urged no one in particular to ‘Stop Fighting’.
A short time later, a street meeting called by local left-wing and republican groups to oppose the declaration of a state of emergency and the most repressive measures conceived by a Dublin government since the ‘troubles’ began called, too, with the support of construction workers who had stopped work earlier in the week in protest against the government’s proposals, got the attention of about 100 people.
Each blow of repression which has hit the republican and working class movements since 1972 has met with less active resistance. The emergence of the peace movement in the North, and echoed on the streets of Southern towns, has made what opposition there was that much more difficult. Whatever the intention of those who launched the peace movement in August its effect has been to provide a cover for the turning of the repressive screw. It has not only deepened the isolation of the Provisionals within the Catholic population of the North, it has created a euphoric atmosphere intolerant to those who point to the state’s sharpening attack on militant political opposition. To the Belfast peace marchers, the Peoples’ Democracy members petitioning for the retention of political status for republican prisoners were almost as much a provocation as the Provisionals themselves.
The organisers of the peace marches have been almost blind to the British Army’s raidings and shooting. They have ignored (or intently supported) the Southern state’s threat of hanging two people and of jailing, for long terms of imprisonment, those who incite others to join or support illegal organisations. But they have demanded information about apparent incidents of republican military action. The impact of the peace movement in cornering the Provisionals and those organisations thought to be or, in fact, their allies, has been far greater than any equivalent effect in isolating the loyalist paramilitary organisations.
The movement has come from within a largely demoralised Catholic population, supported by people who would once have marched for civil rights, against internment, and maybe in republican funerals, but who now, apparently, see no possibility of pushing back the state forces. Weary of war, tired and emotional, they are trying to cut off the source of violence they see closest to them. The Peace movement is easy prey to the Catholic Church, now exercising renewed influence over the Northern ‘flock’ which they had been losing. The deeply sentimental, religious atmosphere of the peace marches precludes any possibility that an independent, working class voice might be heard within it, arguing a different way to achieve the non-controversial goal. The movement’s initiators and organisers refuse answers to awkward questions other than peace peace, peace’. But the increase in calls to the police confidential telephone numbers with information about ‘terrorist’ activities since the marches began in early August must be taken as a fuller unspoken statement.
However none of the attempts to account for their achievement in terms of a conspiracy, none of the details about the precise middle-class corner of Andersonstown or near-Andersonstown which organiser Betty Williams lives in, none of the record of individuals involved in the campaign, none of the very obvious assistance which the movement had had from the press (including the writing of statements by one of the Dublin papers’ Belfast correspondents) – none of these things can alter the fact that the movement has struck a resounding note in a large section of the nationalist population which had previously tolerated, or even supported, the republican organisations.
One of these organisations, the Official republican movement, has already moved so far from distinctly republican positions and tried to accommodate to their feeling that they have been marching as conspiciously as the anonymous mass allowed, with the peace movement – alongside the priests in the North, alongside the government ministers in the South. The Officials’ leadership’s uncritical commitment to the peace movement and their obsessive opposition to the Provisionals have made necessary a fairly low-key response to the Coalition government’s emergency proposals. In their first statment after publication of the Bills the Officials suggested that both the government and the organisation they were attacking – namely, the Provisionals – showed an almost equal streak of fascism. The confusion which two simultaneous and opposed Limerick demonstrations caused their members – who abstained from both – can only be surpassed by the confusion of supporters in Belfast who face a whip to march with the peace people and who see the Official IRA in action again against the British Army.
The Provisionals have been hit by the state’s attacks both North and South and drowned by the peace movement on the streets at a time when their own organisation is at a low ebb. Their fire-power or their resources are not significantly weakened, as the occasional co-ordinated series of bombs demonstrates all too obviously. But their ability to manoeuvre with those strengths and those resources is, however, clearly in doubt. The military campaign has been marked by a series of sudden changes of direction, from a campaign against prison officers, through bombing of soft targets outside Belfast, to shootings of Catholic members of the ‘security’ -forces. Provisional are also directly involved in counter-assassinations to those of the loyalist murder gangs. Much of the retaliation has been – even in purely Provo terms – without aim and direction; the Loyalists who have been hit have not been individuals with a particular or a known role in the sectarian campaign. While the bombing campaign in Britain has receded in the face of increasingly successful police detection, the corner of a cover beneath which may lurk the sordid notion (in the sense that it would have looked like an SAS-type pre-legislation stir-up) of a Provo campaign against properties in Dublin, seems to have been lifted.
The Provisionals have been at the centre of the resistance to imperialism and loyalism for several years. An attack on them from the state or from either of these forces is aimed at all such resistance. Socialists opposing repression in the working class movement are obliged to be specific about the need for defence of the Provisionals, a position made increasingly difficult by their activity – and by their political ineptitude. Their response to the peace marches has been to taunt them, to suggest ulterior motives and conspiracies, but nowhere to show any understanding that it is in part their failure that has contributed to those marches. Their response to the Dublin government’s emergency legislation has been to suggest that because the oppression is increased, the resistance will be all the greater – but nowhere do they play an active part in organising any opposition. The Provisionals’ political wing is, of course, dominated by people close to the military leadership, sharing the same elitism, the same conviction in themselves as the only, and true, inheritors of the national tradition, and on that basis refusing to cooperate with other republican or socialist groups in any political campaign.
It is a paradoxical, but necessary role for the much smaller socialist groups to play, that they try to convince members and supporters of the Provisionals to get the movement to defend itself openly and publicly against measures specifically designed to deal with them. The defence of democratic rights in general has become a leading concern of socialists in the working class movement. Not because they imagine that repressive legislation is likely to be widely used against workers in weeks, months, or even years, but because the successive blows of repression have a deadening effect on the working class movement, too. The Labour Party leadership, heavily committed, as they are to the ‘emergency’ measures, have exploited this to the full – throwing historical traditions and even present experience aside to convince workers that the trade union movement has never been associated with acts of violence and is therefore not under threat. The intimidatory effect has been massively felt: the arguments of Labour politicians such as Conor Cruise O’Brien that opposition to the strengthening of the state implies support for bombings and killings carry much weight. There is a widely held conviction that somebody who does not get into trouble cannot be affected by new, tougher laws – and that means avoiding doing any of the many things which a rightward-moving consenus in the Labour movement would define as ‘getting into trouble’.
The isolation of activists in the anti-imperialist struggle, specifically of the Provisionals, has been a deliberate strategy of the British administration in the North. The ending of internment in December 1975 took from the Provisionals an issue around which they could maintain active links with a large section of the Catholic population. The last phase of mass mobilisation which had provided a cover for intensified military activity was the series of demonstrations in late 1974 in support of the internees who had burned Long Kesh in revolt against conditions there. The fourth anniversary of internment in August 1975 had brought a much smaller response than previous anniversaries. When the last internees were released there was little popular anti-repression activity and the Provisionals were still operating a shaky cease-fire. Merlyn Rees followed with an announcement of the British government’s intention to remove ‘special category’ status from prisoners convicted of terrorist-type offences – a concession originally won after a hunger strike by leading Provisionals in 1971.
Again, Rees’ timing was careful. In fact, nobody who would otherwise have been granted political status and who will now not get it has come before the courts; the backlog of remand cases is still being dealt with. Two separate attempts to mobilise nationalist opinion against the threat, and against the ‘criminalisation’ of republicanism, have already begun to fade: the campaign of pickets and meetings organised by the Relatives’ Action Committee, and a petition launched by Peoples’ Democracy. The Provisionals have not delivered on their early promises to meet Rees’ threat with a direct, militant response. Indeed, their domination of the Relatives’ Action Committee has been instrumental in the campaign’s decline. The emergence of the peace movement has crowned the very considerable success of the effort to break both the ideological and the organisational links of the Provisionals with the nationalist population.
The emergency proposals of the Coalition government in Dublin, designed to take the process yet further, have been worked out in conjunction with the British government. Consultation and cooperation between the two governments in the security is now more advanced than ever – notwithstanding Merlyn Rees’ campaign through the British press to denounce the Irish government’s insistence of pressing forward with the torture case in the European Court of Human Rights. Some of that banter is still necessary in order to convince the Southern electorate that not every semblance of sovereignty has been abandoned for the sake of the war against the IRA. The pattern of ‘anti-terrorist’ measures in the two jurisdictions is that they have outbidden each other, step by step. So, in introducing quite new powers of arrest and detention for the military in the South, the Coalition government has given them the right to hold people for six hours – two hours longer than the British Army in the North may hold people for. The maximum sentence for membership of the IRA (strictly, of ‘an unlawful organisation’) which had previously been set at two years in the South – a year lower than in the North – has now been raised to seven years. The section of the new Criminal Law Act which aroused most (and belated) controversy – the section setting sentences for the new offences of inviting or inciting to join or support an unlawful organisation – is cast in wider terms than a similar provision in the British Prevention of Terrorism Act. The power of the police to hold suspects for seven days is, of course, parallel to provisions of that Act.
The powers of political and physical repression which the 26 County State has now acquired exceed those of most Western European states. Many of the new ones may not be activated in the immediate future, particularly those whose enactment caused most controversy including the possible 24-year sentences for ‘unsurpation of the functions of government’. But the atmosphere in which they have been passed, involving the recall of the deputies from holiday for only the fifth time in the history of the state, and the suspension of part of the Constitution which is such a central part of Irish legal and political life, helps ensure that they have a powerful deterrent and intimidatory effect. That effect was not so much on those already active in the Provisionals or any other armed republican organisation, but on those who may think of joining them or becoming active in some other aspect of the fight against imperialism and capitalism. The Provisionals are an obstacle to the advance of revolutionary socialist politics and organisation; and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (against whom the most immediate attacks may be directed on the passing of legislation) adds to the confusion of ideas and organisations. But if the state is allowed to corner them by the acquisition of new and more repressive powers, then the room for socialists who also oppose the Orange state and the British military presence will be greatly diminished.
The trade union response was dampened by the timing of the government’s announcement made during the holidays. But the slowness and the weakness of the response relative to the more vigorous reaction against previous such measures in 1972 and even 1975, was also a genuine reflection of demoralisation in the movement. The combination of record unemployment high inflation and sharper repression – and the absence of an independent leadership to encourage resistance – have brought this about. The protests which were made against the two Bills during September were made by workers least affected by unemployment and by the restrictive National Wage Agreement – tradesmen on the civil engineering sites building new factories. But in the first two weeks after the publication of the Bills the headquarters of the biggest general union, the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, with a long tradition of nationalism and of opposition to repressive laws, did not receive notice of any objections or protests by branches, sections or district councils. Similarly, the circular letters sent by the Murray Defence Committee two months earlier to trade unions brought only a single reply. The Murrays were, as anarchists outside any organisation classically isolated guinea-pigs on whom to test the response to a death-sentence. That is precisely what the Coalition government has done, refusing to intervene in any way (and certainly not to state that they would commute the sentence) while the courts deal with various technicalities, leaving the young couple waiting on death row since early June.
Anti-imperialists (it is now meaningless to refer to the assortment of groups and individuals fitting that description as a ‘movement’) are working in a more difficult climax than at any time in the past eight years. Many of the conquests of previous years have been eroded or lost. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is again patrolling areas from which it had been excluded for many years. Their entry has in many cases opened access for Loyalist murder groups. The rights of organisation and of political education associated with political status are in danger of being removed piece-meal. A stronger apparatus of repression, including a fast-growing army and police force in the South, is an active discouragement to support. A working class movement defeated in economic areas, too, is all the more vulnerable to the reactionary nonsense coming from government ministers who drum up an ‘emergency’ atmosphere to distract from the deepening economic problems and even to suggest that the failure to be tough on violence before has kept potential investors away and thus added to unemployment.
The bombing campaign of the Provisionals, their theological militarism and their inability to organise politically, have all added to the confusion which has led to those defeats. If they hold a propaganda apparatus together against the likely attacks in the wake of the Dublin government’s emergency legislation, they may feign a leftward turn in order to draw on a growing mass of disaffected, unemployed youth, and in order, too, to maintain some links with the only organisations prepared to defend them in any concrete way. Such a turn could have contradictory results convincing more young workers that the Provisionals are socialists, but also making others more accessible to a revolutionary workers’ organisation. But even without such a turn, it is still true that no revolutionary party worthy of the name will be built unless a significant section of the Provisionals’ remaining working class support, north and south, is drawn away from them. For many of the young workers closest to revolutionary ideas are still in the sway of their ideas and methods
The call for a united front of working class and anti-imperialist organisations against repression – a call which the Socialist Workers’ Movement has been raising for some years with varying degrees of urgency – may fall on less deaf ears in those circumstances. It is certain that the disunity of anti-imperialist forces in the North has contributed very largely to the disorientation in the nationalist population there. It is a rather forlorn hope that more desperate conditions may force a re-think in some of the republican organisations, specifically the Provisionals and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which has a potential support in the North which is not organised politically. The Stalinisation and the political sectarianism of the Officials are now too far advanced to entertain any hopes that they and their allies in the Communist Party would direct their membership and their considerable working class periphery into united work with other republicans or with the small left-wing groups.
It is noticeable however, that the response of some of the rank and file (as with the Provisionals) are more immediately favourable to that perspective than those of the leadership. One of the few stoppages which was organised against the Coalition government’s emergency proposals was initiated by supporters of Official Sinn Fein. And speakers at the September Special Delegate Conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions which voted for an interim National Wage Agreement – speakers who might be said to be in the orbit of the ‘Left Alternative’ (Official/CPI/Left Labour) – were much more vigorous in their condemnation of the government’s measures than the leadership of two of those organisations, at least.
The recent formation of an Irish Council for Civil Liberties, modelled on the British NCCL, provides a cover for some organisations. It has no intention of organising its trade union support and relies heavily on prominent liberal personalities and on legal experts; it has been obliged to preface its criticisms of the Criminal Law Bill (now Act) by saying that some of the measures may be ‘necessary’.
There may be some limited use to be made of the ICCL in explaining the precise implication of new repressive laws to trade union meetings. In the three weeks while the emergency measures were being discussed in the Dail and Senate it held the largest public meeting against the proposals. But there is no possibility that a specifically socialist, or even specifically trade union, interest could be represented within it.
The attention of socialists in the working class and anti-imperialist movements is turned to finding those arguments, those tactics and forms of organisation which can draw together the remaining popular opposition to the mounting repression, while respecting the political and organisational independence of socialist and working class forces. The trade unions’ ‘Better Life for All’ campaign in the North is bound to remain general and abstract in opposing intimidation, violence, sectarianism. If it does not organise open, democratic activity there is not even a forum in which socialists can put more concrete substance into the theoretical principles. The peace movement is hostile to any political expression. The uncritical support for both of these from the principal left-wing forces in the Northern Ireland trade union movement – Communist Party, ‘Militant’ tendency, and the Official republican movement – prevents them from raising any effective opposition to the attacks on anti-imperialists and on political prisoners, in particular. On the other hand, the Provisionals’ domination of any anti-repression activity based on the nationalist population precludes an orientation to sympathetic sections of the trade union movement, and discourages independent and socialist elements wishing to participate, and has, in large part, provided the excuse for the growth of the peace movement.
Revolutionary socialists have,therefore, to keep up a relentless criticism of the Provisionals’ military and political methods, while defending them against state repression, and defending the right of self-defence against sectarian and attack. The effect of such criticism is clearly greater if revolutionaries are fighting alongside Provisionals against repression and in defence of their organisation. The pressure for a united front which involves the Provisionals, but which directs its propaganda and its campaign towards the working class has to be kept up. Equally – and as importantly – the effort to commit sections of the trade union movement to more than qualified verbal opposition to repression has to be intensified. While the fragmentation of the republican movement goes on, the only stable base on which a movement to stop the rot can be built is in the organised working class. Even opposition deputies in the Dublin parliament have suggested that the emergency powers would remain on the statue book for use in the event of wider ‘social upheaval’. The same suspicion was expressed by many speakers at the September special conference of the ICTU. That fear and the obvious anger of a minority in the working class movement that the government has fabricated a security emergency to distract from the economic one, is an important part of the foundation on which a politically independent workers’ movement can be constructed.
Last updated on 20.1.2008