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International Socialism, September 1977


Notes of the Month

Gaining the Upper Hand in Ireland


From International Socialism (1st series), No.101, September 1977, pp.6-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Contributed by members of the Socialist Workers’ Movement in Ireland.

IN THE twelve months since the emergence of the ‘Peace Movement’ in the Six Counties, British Imperialism has strengthen its grip on Ireland. The anti-imperialist movement has been in decline for some years now and it is clear that the increasingly high arrest and conviction records, the lower bombing activity and the low level of local resistance, that the British Government is gaining the upper hand militarily. It is only in the Turf Lodge area in Belfast that there is still regular popular resistance to British army raids, searches and patrols. The hated RUC is beginning to creep back into areas where it has been for six years. At the same time the Provos are finding it harder to obtain arms dumps and people to provide open house for their volunteers.

These problems have produced a political rethink in the Provisional Republican movement, with rumours of left-wing groupings, particularly in the Belfast Brigade. The debate, sometimes carried in Republican News (the movement’s weekly paper in the North) has reassessed the political position of the movement and there have been calls for unity with the left, greater involvement in political activity and for a de-emphasis on the bombing campaign.

Three months ago, at the annual Wolfe Tone Commemoration in Bodenstown, Jimmy Drumm, a Republican leader from Belfast and husband of the murdered Maire Drumm, made a major speech. Such speeches are usually made with the authority of the movement and this one got headlines as it raised possibilities of real change in the movement. Drumm argued that the war of liberation could not be fought only in the north, nor simply around the British army of occupation. He said that the republican movement needed ‘a positive tie in with the mass of the Irish people’ and ‘to make a stand on economic issues and on the everyday struggles of people’. He went on to argue that the British government is not pulling out, as the Provos have claimed for the past two years. He explained the signs of withdrawal were, in fact, due to the world economic recession. Victory is not, as has been claimed so many times in the last seven years, just around the corner.

The speech did not go down well in Belfast. It was attacked by Republicans writing in the independent Anderstown News who disputed his case about British withdrawal. They went on to argue that even if Drumm was right, he should not have said so. It is a major turn of events when even Provos begin to admit that they have made mistakes and may not be winning.

In fact, the Republican movement has missed a number of good opportunities to rebuild mass support in the last year. In March 1976 the government began a policy of removing political status from convicted prisoners as part of a plan to ‘criminalise’ the struggle – the argument being that if the British government says that the Republican soldier convicted of fighting the British Army is the same sort of criminal as the rapist or child-murderer, and treats him or her accordingly, then there will be a drop in support for Republicanism. To date, 172 prisoners have refused to accept this change and are in blankets as a result of refusing prison clothing. A campaign of support led by the Relatives Action Committee has been built to aid the prisoners, but it has lacked mass support. The Provos have not aided the task, for they first suffocated the committee by dominating it, and refused to work with other groups and then neglected it when they thought it was a lost cause.

There are other examples. The Provos were slow to respond to the dangers of the ‘Peace Movement’ but they were finally pushed into action by their rank and file. They got a massive response and marginalised the reactionaries in the Republican areas, but once they regained their confidence they turned their backs on the other groups who had helped them.. During the Loyalist strike in May the Provos rose to the occasion and organised defence and welfare but they did not organise mass opposition to the strike. As a matter of fact, many rank-and-file republicans supported the strike, hoping for an eventual confrontation or civil war situation which would bring about a military solution. Others thought the strike was in some way anti-imperialist. Nothing was done to initiate activity by anti-unionist workers against the strike in their workplaces. Nothing was done to organise more support for Republican issues – no meetings about the prisoners, no anti-imperialist meetings. So the strike was another victory for the government and the loyalists, with a big increase in repression. In the May local elections the mass of Catholics voted for the SDLP, despite its increasing love-affair with the RUC. But there was no alternative – the Republicans totally ignored the elections.

The Queen’s recent visit to Northern Ireland - an open and obvious slap in the face to all Catholics and a celebration of Unionist supremacy – provided an obvious opportunity for resistance, but it was ignored by the Republicans until the last moment. It was only the small groups of Socialists who seized the opportunity to attack the very system the Queen represents and to try and make the very links the ‘everyday struggles of the people’ that Jimmy Drumm had called for. The Workers’ Research Unit produced a pamphlet. The Queen Comes to Belfast, containing articles on the woman’s wealth, the lack of housing in Belfast, the capitalist crisis and unemployment.

A street theatre, organised by socialists, toured Belfast to ‘put the Queen on trial’ with witnesses from the unemployed, the homeless and the prisoners. Socialists distributed ‘Stuff the Jubilee’ badges, stickers and posters. Republicans provided the usual things bombs, a march and riots.

This year of setbacks has forced a re-think by republicans. These failures are not accidents or the result of lack of tactical sense. The Provos missed the chances because they are first and foremost a military organisation which is unable to generalise the anti-imperialist struggle into a working-class movement against capitalism. There are many within the Republican movement who want to right for a workers’ republic but the history of attempts to shift the movement to the left show that this has always failed. The most basic point of all, an attempt to subordinate the military campaign to the needs of the political struggle, is an impossibility within the Provisionals. The military struggle is the reason for the Provos’ existence and, at least in that sense, they will continue to exist as long as the British army is in Ireland. For socialists, this necessary military struggle cannot in any way lead the class struggle. The military struggle must come as a result of working-class action, not the other way around.

The Provisionals are particularly ill-equipped to make the shift to class war. Although most of their members are working-class, the organisation is a class alliance, drawing money and support from nationalist businessmen and politicians. As long as the movement is aimed at the British army, the middle class and working class elements can be held together. Any open attack on capitalism would smash the alliance apart and would endanger the military struggle.

The left in the movement has had no effect on the military campaign. For years they have argued for a campaign against more directly imperialist targets. This winter they won and began a campaign against local businessmen. A number of local capitalists were killed. Left-wing press statements explained that this was part of a campaign against the grass-roots of capitalism. But Seamus Twomey, chief of staff, did not use any left-wing phrases in a Hibernia interview. He explained the attacks as against the ‘type of person that can bring pressure to bear on the British government’. As if to emphasise the point, to prove that Eire Nua’s (the Provos’ programme) dream of a ‘federal Ireland’ meant nothing, and that articles in Republican News don’t matter, the Provos’ first anti-Jubilee protests were bombs planted in Protestant shops in Sandy Row and Lisburn.

Neither in the South nor in the North have the Provos been able to make the changes called for by Drumm. Their involvement in issues in the North not related to the British army, repression or prisoners has been incidental. One important recent development in Belfast has been the formation of the Workers’ Action Council, organised by shop stewards from several factories around trade union issues. Republicans had to argue in the movement for the right to stay involved with WAC. Just a few days after Jimmy Drumm made his speech, Sinn Feiners at a mass picket to support Eastwood strikers in Anderstown complained: ‘They’re not demanding "Brits Out".’

There are many revolutionary socialists within the republican movement and it is important that they are discussing their political direction, but they have to break with republicanism to make the changes they want. The question of ‘Who’s winning’ cannot be judged on the number of dead soldiers and policemen; these are insignificant in the balance compared with the defeats suffered by the working class in Ireland – the masses of unemployed, the thousands of prisoners, the extreme repression, and the rotten living conditions forced on working people by the capitalist system.

It is the revolutionary socialist organisations in Ireland that are involved in the daily struggles. In developing the fight against low wages, unemployment, bad housing into a real struggle against capitalism they will be able to offer a real alternative to the socialists within the Republican movement.

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