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Workers’ International News, February-March 1943


Bob Armstrong

Police Regime in Northern Ireland


From Workers’ International News, Vol.5 No.9, mid February-mid March 1943, p.16.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Below we reproduce part of a letter from Bob Armstrong who was detained without charge or trial for 18 days by the Belfast police and then released. The letter was posted by Air Mail on January 23rd and only reached our London office on February 11th. No doubt the police hesitated about allowing this letter to be transmitted at all, for the conditions which it reveals under the Regime in Northern Ireland are a picture of the worst type of police dictatorship known only in the most backward countries of Europe.

Crumlin Road Jail

There are approximately 600 prisoners in Crumlin Road jail about 300 of whom are serving sentences – probably two-thirds of these sentenced prisoners being IRA men. The remaining 300 are interned, and there are more than 200 other internees in Derry Jail. It is estimated that tens of thousands have been detained since the war. All internments are made under a clause in the Special Powers Act stating that such and such a person has given grounds for reasonable suspicion that he or she has acted or is about to act in a manner prejudicial to the peace. This is the Stormont equivalent of the Japanese “dangerous thoughts” Act. Not a few of the internees assert that they have never belonged to a political organisation in their lives.


It was during my sojourn in Crumlin that the Chief of Staff of the IRA and three of his associates staged their spectacular get-away from the most heavily guarded prison in the British Isles. The drama of this escape was heightened by a black-type RUC advertisement, in the press offering £3,000 reward to anyone supplying information leading to the arrest of any one of these men. The greatest man-hunt in Ulster history is under way. The relentless, unending war between the RUC and the IRA has provided all the highlights in Ulster politics during the past twenty years. The fearlessness of martyred republicans such as Tom Williams has almost legendary fame. The IRA is almost 100 percent proletarian in composition, its great reservoir of strength being the Belfast Falls Road area. The more petit-bourgeois Eire section is but a feeble reflection of the Northern movement. Yet it advocates no social policy whatsoever, for it considers itself to be not in any sense a political party, but purely and simply an army. Its sole aim is to expel foreign imperialism from Ireland. In 1939 it declared war on Britain. When the world war began it welcomed Germany as an ally in the common struggle.

The prevailing cult of national-socialist ideology within the IRA would vanish like a cloud of smoke at the first signs of a British-German concord. All nations and movements are judged in accordance with their attitude to Britain. Yet for all that not a single British soldier has suffered injury at the hands of the IRA since the war began. The reason is clear enough. Despite its pretentious claims the IRA, being incapable of invoking an appeal outside the nationalist areas, cannot rise beyond small-scale skirmishing tactics. To deal with this the RUC, one of the most highly trained police forces in the world, is adequate. Even if, by a miracle, it succeeded in overcoming its immediate enemy, it is madness to believe that the IRA could defeat the British army, and most certainly Britain would not passively surrender the right to garrison Ireland.

To refute this argument republicans cite the successful outcome for the South of the Black-and-Tan war. But this struggle succeeded only because the revolutionary ferment in the British working class prevented the Lloyd George Government from embarking upon a large-scale regular war against Ireland. The great Russian revolution had kindled a flaming love of liberty throughout the world, and not least in Britain. Without this the heroism of the Irish people in 1921 would have proved unavailing. Only the revolutionary movement of the British and Irish working class can finally free Ireland from imperialist rule. But the IRA as yet cannot understand this. Nor is this accidental. For the amazing virility of a historically outmoded form of struggle is due, not mainly to the dead weight of tradition, but to the shameless collaboration with imperialism of parties masquerading as socialist, the Stalinists and the labourites, who compromise working class methods at every step and engender a contempt for socialism.

Discriminated against at every step, the Catholic working class youth are forced into the struggle. More than a third of the Six-County population belong to the so-called “minority”. The Stormont Government sits on a powder magazine. But so long as it sits tight the weight of the RUC is adequate: and kept under control the IRA has great uses. For the Protestant workers, conscious though they be of their membership of the downtrodden class in the general capitalist set-up, they are keenly aware of their privileged position. They fear, and with good foundation, that a victory of the IRA would place them in the position of a persecuted minority. For, no matter how much the IRA declaims against sectarianism, the fact is that, basing itself on the degenerate capitalist system, it could not prevent the unleashing of anti-Protestant pogroms at the signs of mass unemployment.

Why the Trotskyists Are Under Fire

It is axiomatic to Marxists that the weaker a government’s mass basis, the stronger its apparatus of repression must be. The RUC is the real government of Northern Ireland and Dr Moffat, reputed by some to be the most astute police chief in Europe, occupies the unique outside the purely fascist countries and the USSR of being known, at least in the nationalist areas than the cabinet ministers. It is the tremendous material and legal powers enjoyed by the Ulster police that enables them to move with such swiftness and arrogance against legal working class parties.

Yet the Trotskyist movement has not been singled out for attack on account of its smallness, but because its programme is feared. A move threatening to disturb the caste upon which the Stormont regime easily balances, is to be feared above everything else. The Stormont regime fears not an alliance between IRA and the Trotskyists, but the passing over of the glorious Falls Road proletariat from IRA utopianism to a revolutionary socialist program.

For that we will not require to pander to the illusions of the IRA or any other organisation which stands apart from and against the programme of the revolutionary working class. We need no catspaws. We turn to the dauntless working-class youth of the Falls Road and strive to win them, not by nursing outworn prejudices but by proclaiming the power of proletarian methods of struggle you and your class. The Irish section of Workers’ International League demands:

  1. That the internees be released or brought to trial.
  2. The repeal of the Special Powers Acts.
  3. A united front of all working class organisations against the arbitrary rule of the police.


Robert Armstrong
18 Brookvale Ave.

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