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International Socialism, April/May 1970


Sean Treacy

Northern Ireland: The New Orange Offensive


From International Socialism, No.43, April/May 1970, pp.2-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



The decision of the Unionist leadership to seek the expulsion of five extreme right-wing Stormont MPs who defied a three-line whip on a resolution expressing confidence in Chichester-Clarke’s Government opens up a new stage in the political crisis in the six counties. The operative word is to seek their expulsion. Although Chichester-Clarke has had a big majority in the ranks of the Unionist Parliamentary Party, this has not reflected the mood of the Unionist constituency associations. It was clear last year when the package of so-called ‘reforms’ was announced, under pressure from Westminster, that a significant section of the ruling Unionist regime would resist it. While certain big business elements in the regime are prepared to see a modicum of democratic rights advanced to Catholics, other layers of the Orange structure regard such concessions as a sell-out. The extreme right wing draws its support mainly from the lower middle class, which has always been militant in defence of its privileges (particularly in local government administration) within the ‘loyal Protestant State of Northern Ireland’. Many branches of the Orange order are controlled by these elements which, because it is a multi-class body, also involves a minority section of the Protestant working class and small farmers. The Orange right has sought to combat ‘appeasement’ on two fronts. The first has involved the use of naked terrorism. The UPV/UVF is well armed and enjoys some support among the Protestant community. Its tactics are simply to terrorise the Catholic population and its political leaderships (socialist, republican, social democrat and bourgeois nationalist). Ultimately, as one of the right’s leaders McKeague has stated, they intend ‘to finish the job begun in August’; a clear reference to a resumption of widespread pogroms against Catholics. In recent months the ultras have confined their activities to sporadic sabotage and terrorism against individuals. During this period the right has been prepared to give its allies on the right wing of the Unionist Party an opportunity to show if they can capture control of official unionism from the ‘lundies’ (’liberal’ Unionists given to appeasement of the nationalists).

During the past six months the Unionist right wing have proceeded cautiously but effectively to undermine Chichester-Clarke. Their object is to oust him, force a General Election, and with a new right-wing Unionist Party confront Westminster with a refusal to operate the ‘reforms’ as they currently stand. To date the right wing (led by two former Ministers, William Craig and Harry West) appear to have won the support of about one-third of the 40-odd Unionist constituency associations. In any future General Election these constituencies would almost certainly select an extreme rightist candidate (several have done so already), even if this means forcing the departure of the sitting Member. The right are not particular about the tactics they use. One ‘O’Neillite’ liberal Unionist MP has already claimed that he was driven to retire as a result of a terror campaign (including the threat of bombs against his home). In about another third of the constituencies the outcome between the pro-leadership and extreme right unionists hangs in the balance. Significantly, four of the six county associations of Unionist parties have declared for the right-wing rebels. So far Craig has refused to take the initiative in forcing a split with Chichester-Clarke; his hope is that his expulsion will win the extreme right sympathy and will tip the balance in the constituencies where they do not presently have control.

The sharpness of the split can be seen in the language used by Chichester-Clarke against the ultras on March 6, when he said that the Unionist Party would have to choose between his policies and those ‘of the strong-arm and the jackboot’. He is not exaggerating. Craig has the support – if critical – of the armed ultras of the UPV/UVF.

At the same time, Stormont, with tacit backing from the Labour Government, has attempted to appease the extremists. The Ulster Volunteer Force (sponsored by Dennis Healy and Roy Hattersley) was designed to reassure the B Specials that their services are still appreciated (if in a different form) by imperialism. Then the courts have been given the go-ahead to repress civil rights militants. The conviction of Bernadette Devlin and the imprisonment of a number of republicans and a leading executive member of the People’s Democracy were all designed to draw the fangs of the right-wing ultras. So was the balatant dismissal of the case against McKeague and four other UPV ultras on charges of sabotage – the jury was overwhelmingly Protestant and the judge an active Unionist right-winger. Far from appeasing the extreme right, these retreats by the authorities have only whetted its appetite. It now intends pressing ahead to get the official ‘reforms’ sufficiently delayed and diluted to prevent any threat to even the most reactionary and anachronistic corner of Orange Stormont rule.

The successful fight back by the right-wing ultras has been expedited by developments in the civil rights movement. The role of the ‘moderates’ last autumn in pressing for the demobilisation of the civil rights campaign in the interests of ‘law and order’ and making the ‘Constitution work’ clearly showed that the green Tory nationalists and social democrats were prepared to abandon the Catholic workers.. In the intervening months the nationalists and social democrats (both the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Hume-Cooper group) have concentrated their efforts on trying to discredit the socialist militants. The right were unsuccessful in seeking to drive PD out of the CRA but did manage to win a majority for keeping the CRA as a Catholic pressure group rather than a militant civil rights organisation dedicated to fighting for working-class rights in all parts of Ireland. The issues were decided by the votes of the Republicans. The republican movement has been in some disarray since the recent split. Three elements can be discerned: the splinter group of right-wingers dedicated to traditional republican attitudes on the gun and Parliamentary abstention; the reformist leadership of Sinn Fein connected with the southern CP Irish Workers Party; and a minority of revolutionary socialist republicans. The last-named are increasingly moving to the idea of an all-Ireland revolutionary socialist regroupment including the People’s Democracy. The CP, despite its recent decision to merge the six and 26 county parties, is split. The Northern CP has backed the extreme right-wing elements in the CRA.

The present situation is one of considerable confusion and movement. Much will depend on the struggle inside the Unionist Party and on the attitude of British imperialism. At present the revolutionary socialists should avoid two extremes. One is to adapt to the left reformist pressures implicit in civil rights campaigning. The other is a crude kind of economism which talks about uniting Catholic and Protestant workers on a socialist basis and opposing all civil rights activity as ‘sectarian’. The PD has avoided both of these extremes. While recognising that the worsening economic situation in the six counties (with resultant increasing unemployment) has created the opportunity of intervening in working-class struggles to raise the demand for unity of Protestant and Catholic workers, they also see the need to take the lead in the struggle against imperialism and the Stormont regime through issues of civil and political rights. That is why they have led demonstrations against the political jailings and the new Public Order Acts. In the present situation socialists have to fight on two fronts – simultaneously: the fight against Stormont for civil and political rights (notwithstanding that Orange-influenced workers resent this), and the fight for working-class unity in the struggle against unemployment, the bosses and the capitalist system.


24 March

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