From Militant International Review, No. 41, Autumn 1989, pp. 14–19.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked upby Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Clare Short, Labour MP and leader of the ‘Time to go’ Campaign debates the issues with Peter Hadden of the Northern Ireland Labour and Trade Union Group.
MIR: Why did the troops go in in 1969?
Clare Short (CS): The civil rights movement had very mild demands: one person one vote; equal access to housing and jobs etc. They marched. But it evoked an incredibly crude response from the Northern Ireland state. People were beaten and attacked and the police looked on or joined in. It got horrendously worse when it got to Derry, with burnings etc. The troops went in to protect the nationalists from the forces of the Northern Ireland state. They were initially welcomed and given their famous cups of tea.
MIR: Do you think they should have gone in?
CS: I think there was no alternative in those circumstances. That is why the slogan ‘Troops Out’ is totally confusing, as it suggests that the troops are only the problem rather than the need for a political settlement. You cannot just pull the troops out and leave the present political settlement.
Peter Hadden (PH): I do not think that the British troops were sent in to protect the minority community in the North. In the past, British imperialism partitioned Ireland partly to hold onto the North where there was the bulk of industry. But it was primarily to divide the working-class and prevent the struggle for socialism. The economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s changed the strategic interests of the British imperialists. The development of industry in the South, and trade with the South produced a relative stabilisation on the border. The border became an anachronism which the British would have liked to get rid of. That is why in the 1960s they put pressure on the Unionist government to introduce reforms and to meet and discuss with the South, such as the Lemass-O’Neill talks. They hoped that this would lead to dismantling the Northern state and perhaps the reunification of Ireland by a federal solution.
The civil rights movement demanded basic democratic rights, but at the bottom it was a movement motivated by social and economic discontent among both Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants were sympathetic to the civil rights demands. It was a myth that it was just a Catholic movement. The first civil rights marches and Dungannon in August 1968 and in Derry in October 1968 had many Protestants supporting them and on the platform.
But the experience of the civil rights movement proved that the Unionist state could not be dismantled. Because it was a repressive institution, attempts to introduce reforms on the basis of that state and on the basis of capitalism would lead only to a backlash. In August 1969, the situation reached boiling point. There was the possibility of civil war. The British were forced to send in the troops, as they said at the time, as a ‘temporary expedient’.
They sent them in not to protect the Catholics. The record of British imperialism over 700 years in Ireland and for that matter internationally shows scant regard for the rights or the lives of its subject peoples. A civil war would have disrupted Ireland economically North and South and led to re-partition and destabilised that corner of Europe. Also it would have spread into Britain: It would have affected Britain’s international standing. So they sent in the troops to hold the situation, hoping for a solution later.
MIR: Clare, do you agree with Peter’s analysis?
CS: I agree with a lot of it. But it attributed greater clarity to the thinking of the ruling class than they actually have. They stumble towards these objectives rather than have such a clear-minded analysis. That is the way history develops. By 1969 partition had become a historical trap. Britain no longer had any economic, military or political reason for remaining in Ireland. No doubt Foreign Office thinking was that it was an embarrassment and it was time to find a way out. The civil rights movement had revealed the bigotry and discrimination that Britain had allowed to continue and never intervened against. I am sure that Britain now thinks that partition is not essential to its interests but it is not enough of an embarrassment or a problem for the establishment to deal with.
PH: But we must not forget that it was a Labour government that sent in the troops. In doing so, they represented the interests not of the working class in Britain or Ireland, but of British capitalism. The lesson for socialists is that on a capitalist basis no matter which government is in power, there is no solution. A government basing itself on a capitalist solution will end up falling back on military expediency.
CS: That is too crude. You talk about capitalism as though it is instantly replaceable and can be abolished by the best possible Labour government, which we most certainly did not have then. There was no longer any objective interest for British capitalism to retain partition, so in that sense it is just a hangover of history. So the troops did not go in to prop up capitalist interests. Ireland was partitioned for that reason, creating this potential chaos and conflict. But the nationalists did welcome the troops initially. They had been barricaded into their areas and were under the threat of burnings.
PH: But the situation in 1968–9 has been completely forgotten. History is written by the victors, and the people who emerged victorious from this situation were the various sectarian forces who have rewritten the history of that period and distorted it. This was an historic opportunity for building in the North a movement of Catholics and Protestants united against the Unionist state. The leaders of the Labour Party and the trade unions had tens of thousands of workers behind them but simply failed to intervene. They could have channelled the energies of the civil rights movement into a class movement against the very foundations of the state. The whole course of subsequent history could have been changed.
What has been forgotten is that it was not the soldiers that prevented a civil war at that time. There also existed joint committees of Catholics and Protestants in most of Belfast who patrolled the areas and prevented sectarian upheaval, protecting Catholic and Protestant. The army went into a few areas in Derry and West Belfast. But the night after in Belfast soldiers looked on when Catholics were burnt out because they did not know what streets were Catholic or Protestant. If there had been burnings all over the city, the army would not have been able to contain it. There were not because of the joint committees.
Instead of the Labour leaders relying on the army as the only instrument of keep peace, they should have developed this unity of workers on the ground into a peacekeeping force based on the trade unions and local communities. That would have united the communities and would have prevented the sectarianism. Linked to socialist demands the movement could have gone forward to unite people to solve their basic problems. But the Labour leaders rejected this as utopian. History shows who was really utopian. After 20 years using the troops we have had 3,000 people killed.
MIR: Why are the troops still there 20 years later?
CS: They are there because Northern Ireland is irreformable. Discrimination and bigotry are built into that political settlement and attempts to reform it, like the Housing Executive designed to allocate housing fairly, have failed. The state was formed on the basis of a sectarian headcount to create a false majority and prevent a democratic settlement, and bigotry followed inevitably from that – the fear of the nationalist majority – to keep them in their place. The 20 years have proved that if we don’t deal with the question of the border all the mess and sadness will continue into the indefinite future.
MIR: So what you are saying is that it is not just a question of trying to get the troops out but it is also getting a settlement that deals with the question of the border first and foremost?
CS: Yes, ‘Time To Go’ is not ‘Troops Out’. It is saying it is time for Britain to withdraw from Ireland but that does not mean you can just pull up sticks and walk away tomorrow. The effect of the partition means that you need a new constitutional settlement and new arrangements for the continuation, from education to benefits. The spending on repression is massive and jobs in that industry go to Protestants. So you will needs new economic and investments programmes in order generate job guarantees.
Britain needs to say this rotten settlement that we are propping up is doing no good for anyone. We intend to withdraw from Ireland but we intend to negotiate a new political settlement engaging all the people in Ireland in doing that. We have obligations to Ireland because of the damage we’ve done, so we must give economic support to provide decent opportunities. We cannot have some fantasy instant withdrawal of troops and the pretence that that alone would lead to a new and better Ireland.
PH: But why then does the British ruling-class dismantle the state, do a deal with the Dublin government and reunify the country? The answer is because going down that road will worsen the destabilisation and ultimately lead to civil war. The Dublin government has no interest in a united Ireland because they have problems enough in the South without having to handle another poverty ridden state in the North. But more fundamentally, the Protestants in the North would never accept being pushed into a capitalist united Ireland because it has no attraction whatsoever for them. If there were an attempt made to coerce them in that direction, they would resist arms in hand and the result would be a bloodbath. Then possibly the British troops would withdraw leaving a re-partitioned state with Catholic refugees over the border, a Palestine-like population on the doorstep.
CS: Peter said that it would be wrong to push the Protestants into a capitalist Ireland. But nowhere else do we impose the precondition of a socialist settlement for a solution to national problems. We support the right of the people of South Africa to democracy without preconditions about establishing socialism. We believe that the right of democracy will give them the right to work for socialist solutions. So I don’t think we are entitled in Ireland to say that you can only solve your national question if you do it in a socialist way. Solving the national question is a precondition to building the labour movement in Ireland that would be capable of developing a socialist Ireland.
The threat of a bloodbath is partly blackmail. Part of the Protestant rhetoric is to say ‘you dare to move and we will cause a bloodbath. We threaten to slaughter people to keep things as they are’. We must acknowledge this as blackmail and then ask whether there are ways of minimising any such threat. And I think there are. I don’t believe that if Britain dares to change things that they will all reach for a gun and start to cause mayhem on every street corner. Secondly, who would take up weapons? At the moment there are masses of arms in the hands of the Protestants, but mostly licensed by the UDR. Thousands of legal weapons with licenses have been issued to the Unionist community and recorded at the Northern Ireland Office. So Britain, as part of a serious settlement, could call in these arms.
If there is a proper settlement that guarantees the rights of Protestants, it will be in the interests of large numbers to be part of any negotiations to secure their stake in the future. So if done correctly the risks of a bloodbath, which are there (we already have Loyalist sectarian slaughter of Catholics) can be minimised and managed as part of any process of political settlement. The majority of Protestants have an interest in a long-term stable settlement.
Also the response of the Protestants to the Anglo-Irish Agreement points in my direction. The Protestant leaders said they would fight the Agreement, there were huge demonstrations, they all resigned their seats and fought a mini-general election, they threatened and blustered, and there was lots of talk of bloodshed, but here we are now and the Anglo-Irish agreement is still there. It did not lead to a bloodbath and it is the first time since partition that Protestant bluster was taken on by the British state. The lesson of that to me is a hopeful one. I don’t want to minimise the risk of a bloodbath but the lesson of the Agreement is that much of the bluster is exaggerated.
PH: That is not what the military chiefs of staff concluded when they analysed the situation. They advised the government to back off. The Anglo-Irish Agreement still exists but in framework only. Nothing has been implemented. In reality the British government backed down and what exists now is only an agreement on repression and security. Concessions to the Catholics were implied at the beginning of the Agreement but now nobody in the Catholic areas considers they have gained anything from the Agreement.
CS: I did not vote for it.
PH: It is your analysis of the reaction to it I am criticising. The resistance was switched down because the Agreement was never implemented.
CS: No, the element the Protestants objected to was Dublin having as say in the government of the North and that has been carried through. They meet regularly and they discuss the future of the government of the North. They lost on that.