From A Liverpool Militant pamphlet by Richard Venton and Peter Hadden, Socialism – Not Sectarianism: Labour & Northern Ireland Politics 20 Years On, 1989, reprinted in 1990.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (July 2012)
August 1969 was a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. The riots which followed the march by 1,500 Apprentice Boys in Derry on August 12th brought the province close to civil war. Within a few days seven people were killed, and 750 injured. Whole streets were gutted as 1,800 families, 1,300 of them Catholic, were forced to flee their homes. Barricades sealed off huge working class areas of Belfast and Derry.
With the police forces of the Unionist state battered to near exhaustion or gone out of control, the Labour government in Britain decided to send in the troops. That decision, intended as a temporary expedient has had enormous repercussions ever since.
For 12 months prior to August 1969 Northern Ireland had been convulsed by the mass campaign for Civil Rights. Throughout the 50 year history of the state the Unionist Government had practiced blatant discrimination against the Catholic minority. The mass support for the Civil Rights campaign showed that this situation would be tolerated no longer.
By the 1960s their strategic interests had changed. A Free Trade Agreement signed with the South of Ireland had opened up new and profitable vistas. By the time of the onset of the ‘Troubles’ the South was the 5th largest market in the world for British goods. Economically the border was an anachronism. Under these circumstances, and in the continuing conditions of world economic upswing, the British capitalists would have preferred to see the sectarian apparatus in the North dismantled, paving the way for possible political withdrawal and reunification.
By the summer of 1969 the stormy reaction to the Civil Rights protests had clearly shown that such things were not to be. Those concessions which were promised by the Unionists proved too little and too late. The Unionist leaders could give no more without risking a Protestant backlash. Reform of the Northern Ireland state had proved impossible on a capitalist basis.
But the drift to sectarianism was not unavoidable. The Civil Rights movement was, at bottom, a class movement driven forward by unemployment, poor housing and poverty. These conditions were endured by both Protestant and Catholic workers. During 1968 and into 1969 the struggle against the Unionist state could have gone one of two ways. Either it could have taken a sectarian form, basing itself only on the minority population, or else it could have developed into a class movement linking the struggle for democratic rights with the class struggle for jobs, homes and a living wage.
The first period of civil rights agitation provided a unique opportunity for the development of such a united class struggle of Protestant and Catholic workers.
Unfortunately this opportunity was missed. The leaders of the Labour Party and of the trade unions who had the first responsibility to present a class alternative, simply failed to intervene. The Civil Rights leadership became more and more dominated by middle class Catholics and nationalists who limited their demands to rights for Catholics. Over a period of time the socialists within the Civil Rights movement who argued against this narrow sectarian appeal tended to become isolated. The narrowing of the Civil Rights programme, in the context of the sectarian, repressive and poverty stricken state, led directly to the pogrom of August 1969.
By the early summer of ’69 sectarian tensions were beginning to rise. There were sectarian clashes in Ardoyne and Unity Walk areas of Belfast, in Dungiven, Lurgan and elsewhere. On the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast a body called the Shankill Defence Association (SDA), a forerunner of the Loyalist paramilitaries, was set up by the right-wing bigot, John McKeague, and was involved in the sectarian fighting and in the intimidation of Catholics.
It was against this background of ever increasing tension that the march of the Protestant Apprentice Boys took place in Derry on August 12. As the marchers paraded inside the ancient walls of the city, which overlook the Catholic Bogside, rival groups exchanged taunts but at first there was no violence.
Derry Labour Party and Young Socialist members were active along with other members of the recently formed Derry Citizens Defence Committee (DCDC) in restraining the Catholic youth. But at one point stones and missile were hurled at the parade. As trouble developed between rival crowds the RUC responded by attacking the Catholics with relish. Fearing an invasion by the RUC, backed up by gangs of Protestants, the people of the Bogside and Creggan rose to defend their areas. Barricades were erected.
The entire population of these areas became involved in their defence. In this uprising all aspects of the running of the area were taken over. Despite repeated forays the RUC could not penetrate the defences. Fighting raged all night on the 12th and through the next day. By the 14th the police forces were becoming exhausted. Then the Unionist Government gave the order to mobilize the hated B Specials. As they appeared on the edge of the Bogside the Catholic residents prepared to resist to the death, fearing that a pogrom was certain.
It was then that the British government gave the order to commit its troops and by late afternoon on August 14th, soldiers from the Prince of Wales Regiment took up position around the Bogside. The siege of the Bogside triggered an enormous reaction throughout Ireland. Violence quickly spread to other areas – Dungannon, Dungiven, Newry, Lurgan, Coalisland and Strabane.
There were spontaneous demonstrations in the South, including a march to the British Embassy in Dublin. Aware of the mood of anger which was developing, Irish Prime Minister Jack Lynch announced the setting up of field hospitals and refugee camps and called for United Nations troops to be brought in. Lynch later moved Irish troops close to the border, not with any intention of intervening but to head off pressure for more decisive action and also to check any possible efforts by Southern Republicans to intervene by moving arms across the border or launching attacks for the South.
But it was the spread of the violence to Belfast which was to have the most serious consequences. On the 13th there was serious rioting in West Belfast. Tensions were high in both Protestant and Catholic areas. The next night, hours after the troops had been sent into Derry, the Unionists deployed B Specials along the Shankill. The RUC were ordered into the adjoining Catholic Falls Road district, with Shoreland armoured cars mounted with machine guns.
That night there was fighting in the Lower Falls area. At one point a group of Catholics provocatively paraded up the mixed Dover St and Percy St area which ran up towards the Shankill, carrying a tricolour. On the Shankill John McKeague mobilized the SDA, spreading stories of a Catholic invasion. The result was attacks on Catholic streets by mobs of Protestants and B Specials.
On the Falls the RUC opened fire with their machine guns. As tracer bullets streaked through the air, chaos and panic became widespread. Some RUC units mistook the police fire for an armed attack on them and fired back. In the Ardoyne area there were similar scenes. By morning five people had been shot dead in Belfast, four Catholics, and one Protestant. Thousands were homeless, their houses reduced to burnt out shells.
Twenty four hours after their arrival in Derry, troops were sent on to the streets of Belfast. They mounted barriers along the peace lines. Their ignorance of the mosaic sectarian geography of Belfast resulted in these barriers being put up in the wrong places in some areas. That night Catholic homes in the Clonard district, which troops had assumed to be a Protestant area, were burnt while soldiers looked on unsure what was happening.
Catholics in the North had found themselves defenceless against these pogroms. Despite a statement from the IRA in Dublin that Northern units were in action defending the Catholic areas the attacks had shown the pitiful weakness of the IRA and their inability to carry out their self-styled role as defenders of the Catholics.
The IRA were virtually non-existent at the time. In Ardoyne they offered no defence. In the Lower Falls they produced 13 men with a total arsenal of two Thompsons, one Sten gun, one Lee Enfield and nine handguns. The failure of the republican leadership to provide defence was the spark which produced the Provisional IRA, even though the formal split in the republican movement did not take place for some months.
Feeling themselves defenceless the initial reaction of the Catholic population was to welcome the troops. The majority of the civil rights leaders were swept along by this mood. The position of people like John Hume and Austin Currie was that the programme of the Civil Rights movement would now be implemented.
So when it was later announced that the RUC were to be disarmed and the B Specials to be replaced by a new force, the Ulster Defence Regiment, Currie stated that he was ready to join the police reserve and Hume declared of the UDR, ‘I will encourage all members of the minority to join this force’.
The leaders of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and of the trade unions likewise supported the army presence. Even some of the ’left’ civil rights leaders were thrown off balance. Bernadette Devlin did not oppose the entry of the army although within days she took the position of demanding that a UN peace-keeping force be sent in!
It was left to Derry Labour Party and to Militant to take a clear position. In an edition of their Barricades Bulletin, distributed behind the Derry barricades, Derry Labour Party said: “British troops are not here to protect us, the Free State Army, will do nothing, and no Unionist government can give us what we want”.
Militant (September 1969) predicted:
“The call for the entry of the British Army will turn vinegar in the mouths of some of the Civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interest of British and Ulster big business.”
The troops were not sent in out of some new found humanitarian concern on the part of the British ruling class for the Catholics. Such concern would sit uneasily on the shoulders of this class, with its history of bloody conquest and ruthless oppression. The real reason for the presence of the troops was because the alternative of a bloody civil war was unthinkable for the British capitalists. A civil war would have engulfed the whole of Ireland.
British property North and South would be threatened. Its trade with the South would be lost. Fighting would spread to the Irish communities in Britain. Internationally, especially in America, Britain would be blamed and its trade would be endangered by embargoes and boycotts. The army could help temporarily contain the situation in 1969 but it could solve nothing. It was therefore inevitable that it would end up not as an instrument of defence, but of coercion, being used against whatever opposition movements would develop to the policies of the British government.
The honeymoon with the Catholics in 1969 threatened to end abruptly over the issue of the barricades. A further reason for the army intervention as because the British ruling class feared that the ideas of socialism, of united class action, might emerge even from the chaos of a potential civil war situation.
They lived in dread at the powerful influence such left wing ideas had m the barricaded areas of West Belfast but especially of Derry. Left outside the control of the state these areas could become vast universities of revolution. This is the concerned manner in which the right wing Economist described the scene in the Bogside at the time:
’In William Street before the main barricade across Rossville Street the words “Forward to a united socialist republic” are painted in the roadway. “No police state but a workers revolution now” drip from a burnt out factory wall, and the flag of the Connolly Association (The Starry Plough - PH) has been paraded with the Irish tricolour in the heady meetings in the Bogside area".
Derry Labour Party warned (Barricades Bulletin)
“The troops. cannot stay on guard duty forever. When they came into the area they will be coming to re-establish the governments’ control and to pave the way for the RUC.”
The party took the historic step of producing a special leaflet appealing to the soldiers not to be used to remove the barricades and enter the Bogside. The leaflet was warmly received by the troops.
The army was determined to remove the barricades but their strategy was to talk them down. To achieve this they opened discussions with leading Catholic politicians, with the church and also with the republican and middle class leadership of the DCDC and the Central Citizens Defence Committee which co-ordinated life behind the Catholic barricades in Belfast.
By the end of September Jim Sullivan, a well-known Belfast Republican and the leading figure in the CCDC was confident enough to declare: ‘the army will provide adequate protection for the Catholics.’ Eventually agreement was reached with the army and the barricades came down – but without any of the central demands of the people of these areas having been met. Government authority was re-asserted over both Catholic and Protestant areas. Nothing was resolved. Instead the scene was set for further and even worse violence.
The troops solved nothing in 1969 or since. Those socialists who in the teeth of the 1969 pogrom stood resolutely by their ideas and warned against the involvement of the troops have been vindicated. But to have opposed the entry of the troops, or subsequently to demand their withdrawal, without at the same time posing an alternative which could safeguard the lives of both Catholic and Protestant workers, would have been light-minded in the extreme.
In truth the outline of such an alternative existed even in the jaws of the August 1969 inferno. As the summer of 1969 approached, defence became a major issue in working class areas, especially in Belfast. Local defence groups sprang up. With very few exceptions these not only were non-sectarian, they were anti-sectarian. Even in trouble-spots like Ardoyne and Unity Walk, local groups went out of their way to prevent attacks on Protestant families in their area.
Local vigilantes in the Dock area of Belfast warned:
‘All the Protestant and Catholic neighbours are still on the most friendly terms and if any outsiders attempt to come in and disrupt this harmony they will be ordered out of the area.’
Other areas of Belfast had joint Protestant-Catholic peace patrols. These included: Ballymurphy, Springhill, Turf Lodge, New Barnsley, Springmartin and Highfleld. Even in the Clonard area where streets were burnt on August 15, joint Protestant and Catholic peace patrols were able to operate right up to that afternoon.
East Belfast groups successfully kept the violence and intimidation at bay. Catholic homes in this predominately Protestant part of the city were protected. The Ballyrnacarrat vigilantes issued an appeal for ‘street patrols, leaders to be elected, any family threatened to be given immediate and constant protection, a good neighbour policy, strict control of alcohol, and a voluntary family curfew.’
The burning of parts of Clonard after the deployment of troops showed that the army would have been completely incapable of providing protection if the violence had spread beyond a few areas of the city. In reality it was not the troops but primarily the spontaneous mobilisation of working class people to protect their streets which contained the situation. Likewise in the workplaces, it was the courageous stand of hundreds of shop stewards which prevented a repeat of the 1920’s, when thousands of Catholics were driven from their jobs.
Attention inevitably focused on the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the scene of earlier pogroms. What happened there would affect many other work places. By August 14th shop stewards in this yard were being approached by workers who were demanding to know what the unions were going to do. An impromptu meeting of shop stewards decided to call a mass meeting of their workforce the following day.
At the meeting senior shop steward Sandy Scott appealed: ‘If we act as workers irrespective of our religion we can hope for an expansion in work opportunities and a better life’. A call for a token stoppage was agreed unanimously by the 8,000 crowd.
That night Scott and a fellow shop steward James McFaul, both Protestant, walked around the areas behind the Falls Rd barricades visiting the homes of Catholic shipyard workers who had felt too scared to come to work, appealing to them to return. The next day the Catholic workers returned to the yard. The action of the shipyard shop stewards was reciprocated in other workplaces. It is true that neither these shop stewards nor the various peace committees formulated a clear class position on what should be done. The Unionist Minister of Commerce and the Lord Mayor of Belfast were among those invited to speak to the Harland and Wolff workers. Nonetheless, all these initiatives were elementary steps in the direction of independent class action by Catholic and Protestant workers to halt the drift to sectarian conflict.
Had a clear lead been offered by the trade union and Labour Party tops, the activities of the shop stewards and of area peace committees could have been drawn together. A united workers’ defence force based on the trade union organisations could have been established. If this body were to be linked to a struggle for houses, jobs, decent wages for all and for socialist policies and a socialist government to bring these about not only would the danger of sectarianism have been averted, it would have been possible to unite the working class as never before.
The leaders of the Labour and trade union movement failed to take advantage of this opportunity. In Britain the Labour government acted as a parliamentary agency for the interests of British capitalism in Ireland. Irish Labour Party leaders in the South supported the entry of the troops and failed to take an independent class stance. The Northern Ireland Labour Party leaders did likewise.
The trade union leadership issued leaflets appealing for calm. But they took no steps to organise resistance to sectarianism or to give concrete assistance to those of their members who were doing so. The courageous efforts to halt the sectarian fighting were organised from below by labour movement activists. Meanwhile the leaders of the movement adopted a position of passivity while calling for full support for the Westminster government and for the troops.
Already by the summer of 1969 the mistakes made by the civil rights movement and by the Labour movement had reinforced sectarianism. But even at this stage the situation could have been turned around. The sectarian reaction which began that summer could have been as a spur driving the organisations of the working class into action and shifting society decisively to the left.
Because of the absence of a fighting socialist leadership this did not happen. The working class were betrayed by the ineptitude, passivity and cowardice of those at the head of their organisations. Ultimately the united defence committees disappeared, some after direct attack by bigots from both sides who wanted to see them broken up. Shop floor unity was retained but the shop stewards were forced onto the defensive by the pressure of the bigots inside and outside the factories.
August 1969 represented a defeat for the working class. It prepared the way for even deeper sectarian reaction and for the emergence of new sectarian-based forces: the Provisional IRA and the right-wing loyalist paramilitaries whose actions would only further complicate and worsen the situation.
Twenty years on, the Labour movement has not yet fully recovered from this defeat. The first step to doing so is to learn the real lessons of 1969 and apply the conclusions of the need for socialist policies and a socialist leadership to the situation today.
Last updated: 18.7.2012