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International Socialism, January 1975


Brian Trench

Misplaced Hopes:
People’s Democracy in the Six Counties


From International Socialism, No.74, January 1975, pp.26-27.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


People’s Democracy
Paul Arthur
Blackstaff Press, £3:50

THERE IS only one book which deals at all seriously with the Irish anti-imperialist or working class organisations of the last forty years – Bowyer Bell’s book on the IRA. That extraordinary fact has to be seen as an accurate reflection of how weak the concept and practice of revolutionary political organisations have been in the Irish struggles over this period.

Look even at the several accounts of the period of rebellion from 1910 to 1923: you will find nothing in detail on the political organisations. The biographies of Connolly and Larkin give little or no idea how the socialist organisations of which they were part operated. There is no account of the interrupted history of the Communist Party of Ireland through the Revolutionary Workers Groups, Irish Workers League, Irish Workers Party to the re-united (north and south) Communist Party of Ireland. There is not even an apologetic history – never mind a critical one – of their Irish Labour Party, founded on the basis of a resolution by James Connolly to the Trade Union Congress of 1912, and now the vital prop of a right-wing Coalition government.

Paul Arthur’s book on People’s Democracy does not fill a very noticeable gap – PD is not the organisation most in need of analysis, and the author’s method is an effective obstacle to learning essential lessons from the PD experience. It was written as an academic thesis, and in spite of some apparent editing, it still smacks of it. The author’s treatment of PD is in terms of an American sociological ‘model’ for the development of radical movements in five stages. The model doesn’t even define radical, much less examine the social and political context of the movements. Arthur does not ask what was possible in any given situation, or what other organisations were saying and doing.

The Preface by fashionable liberal political scientist, Bernard Crick, should be warning enough. ‘It is just so very hard’, he says chattily, ‘to be of scholarly objectivity about contemporary politics.’ The book is well larded with footnotes – up to 90 in a short chapter, many of which could have been incorporated into the body of the text. In spite of the title, Paul Arthur, who was himself a early member of PD only effectively covers a period from October 1968 to October 1970, and wraps the rest up in 16 pages of Conclusion and Postscript.

This is perhaps the book’s greatest limitation – that it does not deal with the period after the introduction of internment (August 1971) in any detail. This is the period in which PD decisively turned away from attempting to establish a distinct and independent revolutionary working class force in the anti-Unionist and anti-imperialist struggle. It is because of that turn that the hopes some revolutionaries had, in Britain and Ireland, that a serious revolutionary organisation could emerge from it were abandoned. The comrades who in October 1971 founded the Socialist Workers Movement had had some contact with PD earlier in 1971, and in the immediate aftermath of the introduction of internment. Their decision to set up SWM was provoked in part by PD’s collapse into nationalism.

With all these reservations, the book gives a few useful insights into the formation and early development of PD. Reading some of that again, I realise that the hopes for PD expressed in this journal – and by myself - were probably always misplaced. If a revolutionary socialist organisation with a serious orientation to the working class had emerged from the amorphous thing that was the early PD, it could only have been as the result of a miracle – or a consistent internal political struggle. Those who once looked like possible candidates to carry out such a struggle were either unwilling or unable to do so. Given the fast-moving situation, the slightest hesitation in taking up this struggle was bound to be disastrous.

The name ‘People’s Democracy’ was first applied to open student assemblies held at Queen’s University, Belfast, to organise civil rights protests. Six months later, PD was still describing itself as a civil rights group. Six months later again, in October 1969, it adopted a resolution in favour of ‘the establishment of an Irish Socialist Republic’ and became an individual membership organisation whose members were ‘recommended’ to make a contribution. One year later again it adopted a programme of 22 demands which ranged from ‘commercial advertisements to be excluded from television and radio services’ to ‘the disbandment of the RUC, UDR, and Garda Siochána.’

People’s Democracy put up eight candidates for the Northern general elections in April 1969, each with his or her very own individual approach to the election and the organisation and each of whom – with one exception - left organised politics several years ago. That exception – and the one line of continuity through PD’s variegated career is Michael Farrell. Farrell had been a member of the Young Socialist Alliance which was the relatively hard core inside the soft mass of the early PD. He had hopes that PD would ‘realise the necessity of taking a stand on class issues and would therefore transform itself into a broadly socialist body’ (April 1969) and he more than anyone else had a chance of seeing his hopes for PD realised. For at times it has seemed that PD was held together – or alternatively, fell apart – by personal loyalities to him.

Farrell represented the best that PD might have become. But as he had changed, so too has PD. Whatever his undoubted talent and energy, he and PD allowed too much of the organisation’s external expression and internal self-understanding to go through him for it to develop coherently. His personal effort at making sense of a situation into which he and PD were thrown largely without preparation could never have been a substitute for a political education shared by all the members. In early 1970 PD branch meetings in Belfast were still open, and often consisted of wrangles between Farrell and Brendan Clifford, then developing the reactionary Two Nations theory. The other PD members simply looked on. And yet one of the characteristic features of PD has been hostility to theoretical work and only the very slightest interest in political education. PD made a fleeting attempt to grapple collectively with some of the problems facing socialists in Ireland through a theoretical magazine, Northern Star. Farrell was, not surprisingly, the main contributor. And it is an indication of how little serious effort went into it that the editor of the second issue (the editorship was rotated), could declare that he was against ‘party theoreticians’, meaning he was against a unified line.

It was a reflection of PD’s lack of an overall sense of where it was going or where, for that matter, it came from, that the movement’s public activity was organised in campaigns, some of which Paul Arthur details here. PD organised a series of meetings and protests about the Public Orders Act, a campaign for Lough Neagh Eel Fisheries to be handed over to the fishermen, a campaign of meetings, pickets and a petition against high bus fares in Belfast, and so on. Again, it was largely as a consequence of not having a clearly established base for its own independent activity that PD made its public appearances largely in relation to some other organisations: within the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, in association with the Official Republicans, in the Northern Resistance Movement and since its demise in association with the Provisional Republicans, and in the Irish Civil Rights Association. There might be no objection to using the platform others set up if it were not the case that PD was tailoring its politics accordingly.

Not having an overall strategy or the means to locate themselves self-critically PD has often fallen back of repeated and arrogant assertions of its own importance. So, the editor of the Northern Star referred to above pointed out that PD was a threat to the state because it had so many members jailed and so many awaiting trial. Given that PD was organising demonstrations every weekend at that period, it was hardly surprising that its members run into the arms of the law.

A moralistic streak, which often goes with petit-bourgeois radical politics, has run through much of PD’s approach. It has usually taken precedence over tactical considerations. PD has not been afraid to show its weakness in public, if only because to demonstrate was always better than not to demonstrate, Over many months, PD organised marches to Belfast city centre in order to make the point.that they were not allowed into the centre while loyalists were. All they got were sore heads and a diminshing crowd – and eventually Michael Farrell and Tony Canavan arrested.

PD’s self-activism and self-righteousness prevented it from distinguishing itself on a working class, political basis from others opposing Unionism and repression. But then PD’s attitude to the middle class Catholics changed several times too. Aidan Corrigan was lampooned as ‘Count the Catholics Corrigan’ in 1969 and 1970, and shared platforms with PD spokesmen in 1972 and 1973.

PD held the view for a couple of years that the next thing to happen in the North would be fascism, the brutal reinstatement of Protestant ascendancy, so it is doubtful if during that period at least, they had an interest in distinguish ing themselves decisively from the middle class elements. Their analysis, based on a wholly wrong assessment of the British ruling class’s interest in Ireland, always left PD open to advocate popular front-type politics.

Had PD really cared about establishing an independent working class presence in the Northern anti-Unionist, anti-repression camp, it would have made more than half-hearted, rhetorical attempts to involve itself in distinctly working class struggles in the South. In the main, it’s activity in the South, such as it has been, is an extension of its involvement in the anti-repression struggle in the North, Mike Farrell’s speech to the Socialist Labour Alliance in October 1971 predicted that Craig, Boal or Paisley would succeed Brian Faulkner, and stated that in this situation (defined as fascism), Southern socialists would have to give all help to the North. PD has generally shown a haughty indifference (and ignorance) to the economic concerns of the Southern workers. They still have to refer to the activity in solidarity with striking cement workers in 1970 to demonstrate that they have ever shown any interest in them.

None of this is to deny the value of some of PD’s agitation on issues of repression. But this has become an end in itself, not a part of an overall strategy, as it needs to be. PD’s present position is stated in the following terms: ‘We support the war of resistance against British control in the North and have agitated and will continue to agitate, to back up that war – north and south’. The war, needless to say, is the one waged by the Provisional IRA. From considering in March 1971 that ‘bombings and shootings as part of a planned campaign of disruption will drive the Protestant workers into the Unionist camp’ (Mike Farrell in an interview with the Irish Press), PD had come round a year later to full support for the bombings and shootings. They ceased to care too much – if at ail-about how Protestant workers might be won away from the Unionist leadership. Indeed, their use of the model of the Algerian war of independence and their proposal (September 1972) of ‘an all-Ireland secular Republic’ as a solution to the continuing crisis demonstrated that they were hardly aware of the working class’s specific interests at all Protestant workers or Catholic workers.

The introduction of internment had been the breaking point. PD, ill-prepared when it struck, quickly gathered forces and flung itself into a campaign to end it. As with previous campaigns their long-term intentions were quite unclear. Demands were chopped and changed. But, above all, PD kept agitating – and the Provisional republicans, who have never shown much talent at either agitation or propaganda, were happy to let them do it, and to lend them support.

Here, as in earlier situations of crisis, PD won much public attention. Their initiatives were often crucial for boosting the mass movement. But their prospective was top vague to turn this into coherent influence. Their energy and dedication won them respect and even a few recruits from the Provisional. But PD had no independent base, little independent politics, to direct new recruits and they lost what they gained almost as quickly again. In its six-year history PD only once made an excursion into industrial and trade union work in order to build there independently of the anti-Unionist movement. But that involvement was fairly peripheral, mainly taking the form of reports in their weekly paper. The few working class trade unionists recruits gained in that period did not stay long.

The essential point about PD’s evolution – and this could never be shown through Paul Arthur’s five-stage model – is not so much that it changed and went through ups and downs, but’that it could never consolidate what it gained, because it had no worked out theoretical and practical core, because it had no clear conception of the road to a working class revolution. And that was true as much when PD was denouncing the republicans as it has been in their fixations with them. Objective developments threw opportunities in PD’s path; the energy of its members threw up more; but PD could never build on them. The slogan of the Workers’ Republic – whether at a time when the main call was for civil rights or for support for the war of national liberation – has always been external, not an integral part of a strategy, much less a central part. PD has even ended up . equating an ‘Irish solution’ with a socialist solution.

Readers will only be able to extract this from Paul Arthur’s book if they bring to it their own information – and, of course, their own understanding of the nature of united front work, the impossibility of ‘stages’, and the central role of the working class. Armed with all that, readers may be able to make some use of Paul Arthur’s documentation, poorly presented though it is.

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