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Troubled Times

Peter Hadden

Troubled Times

Section Two
Forever Divided?

Chapter 10
A Mood for Change


There was no fundamental shift of consciousness, outlook or of relations between the various sections of the working class during the first few decades of the new states. Then, from the 1950s the ground began to shift away from sectarian division. It is no accident that during the 1960s, right up to the eve of the Troubles, the idea that there were two nations as opposed to two states held very little currency.

By 1968 all the critical indicators pointed to the opposite, and had done so with increasing force for more than two decades. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s the tendency was to the breakdown of the old sectarian divisions and to the unity of the working class.

Old sectarian housing patterns were dissolving. The new housing estates being built around Belfast tended to be mixed. Even in the inner city areas the lines of delineation were becoming more blurred.

There was a greater social integration in clubs and bars. The thriving rock scene in Belfast in the mid and late ’60s was of no particular sectarian colouration. There was even nothing uncommon or unusual for some Catholic youth to join in the drinking and ‘celebrating’ at the 11th night bonfires.

In this more relaxed atmosphere loyalist gangs such as those which had attacked Catholic and socialist workers before partition and were still at the same business in the 1930s, seemed more and more anachronistic. By the late ’50s they were not much more than a memory.

This is not to say that sectarianism on the Protestant side had died out. Far from it. The Unionist Party was in government and still attempted to play the Orange card mainly to slow up the march of Labour. However the growing support for the NILP did demonstrate that Unionism was losing its grip over sections of the Protestant working class.

This was the time when Paisley began his evangelical crusade against the ‘Rome ward trend’ of the Protestant churches. His publicity-seeking activities drew scant support. To most Protestant workers and youth he was a crank, obsessed with issues about which they cared very little.

There were no loyalist paramilitaries. The tiny handful of hard line loyalists who briefly formed a UVF in the mid 1960s were out of step with their communities. Their new formation was ineffective and short lived. The murder of a Catholic barman who had gone to a Shankill Road pub for a late drink one night in 1966 provoked only disgust among Protestants. The O’Neill government replied by banning them – to the relief of most Protestants – and the organisation disintegrated.

The idea that there is a direct organisational line from the present UVF to this earlier outfit is false. Individuals such as its founder Gusty Spence may have overlapped, the Paisleyite inspiration may have been the same, but the UVF had to be re-formed from nothing when the Troubles began.

Paradoxical as it might seem, the start of the Troubles came after an historic shift away from the ideas of nationalism and of republicanism among the Catholic population generally.

In 1956 the IRA launched a military campaign with raids across the border modelled on the flying column attacks of the 1919-21 War of Independence. For the next six years this ‘border campaign’, so called because it was confined to border areas, continued in the form of sporadic and ineffective attacks. Catholics in the border areas looked on passively while those in Belfast paid little or no heed. The leadership called it off in 1962 admitting that it had failed to draw broad support. Their ceasefire statement acknowledged:

“Foremost among the factors motivating this course of action has been the attitude of the general public whose minds have been deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people – the unity and freedom of Ireland.” [48]

The border campaign served to educate the next generation of Catholic youth of the futility of individual terrorism. To most of the fresh generation who poured onto the streets at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the IRA was a museum relic, not relevant to present needs.

Nationalism likewise was on the wane. Briefly it flared up as a force in the 1950s only to rapidly die away. In 1955 Sinn Fein, through a combination of circumstances which gave them a clear run for nationalist votes, managed to poll 150,000 votes in the 1955 Westminster election. In a Southern general election two years later they polled a credible 65,000 votes, in part a rural nationalist vote, in part a radical vote which defected from Labour following its participation in coalition. In elections in 1959, by which time it was clear that the IRA border campaign would flounder, the Northern vote virtually halved, to 77,000. The presence in the South dwindled away also. It was a brief flurry of national sentiment, not betokening a new revival, rather a concentration of its force on the way to its eclipse.

Nationalism declines

By the late 1960s nationalism both as an ideology and as an organised force was losing its grip on the masses. The Nationalist Party was seen as feeble and inept, doing little more than provide a convenient foil for the Unionists.

This is not to say, as is often suggested, that Catholics had abandoned the idea of a united Ireland and were moving towards an acceptance of the Northern state, content merely to seek change within it. Among middle class Catholics it is true that a pragmatic view was taking hold. As far as they were concerned, since nationalism could hold out no hope of ending partition, it was better, for the time being, to concentrate their energies on securing better treatment in the North. John Hume was a representative of this view.

There was a different outlook among the Catholic working class especially among the vibrant generation of youth who emerged into struggle at the end of the ‘60s. They saw only poverty and discrimination in the North, but in the South what they saw was as bad if not worse.

Changes since the war had widened the gap between North and South, making the South less attractive by comparison. The Unionists, against their judgement, instinct and will, had been forced by the pressure of the working class to follow the post war Labour example and introduce the Welfare State. The Northern economy had grown in the 1950s, only to stagnate in the 1960s. For the South the ’50s had been another decade of stagnation; unemployment rose and a colossal figure of 400,000 people were forced to emigrate.

Turning away from nationalism, the Catholic youth did not embrace the Northern state but began to look to more radical solutions. Deep down the shift was to a socialist consciousness; after 1966 the socialist ideas of James Connolly underwent a revival among the youth, North and South.

The ’60s was a decade of growing class unity. It began with significant struggles by workers in the Belfast shipyard, in the Shorts aircraft factory and other big industries against redundancies and threatened closures. Other important strikes took place during the middle years of the decade, although overall this was not a time of intense class struggle. Then in 1967 and into 1968 a strike wave developed which affected broad layers of the working class and indicated an underlying radicalisation.

Politically this industrial anger was reflected in the growth of support for Labour; for the NILP in Protestant and Catholic areas, and for the smaller Republican Labour Party in some Catholic seats. The NILP did not just gain electorally, its branches filled out and it began to shift to the left, away from the ‘Labour Unionism’ espoused by its most senior figures.

The sectarian division remained but the various sections of the working class and the youth were moving away from the old ideas and, albeit setting out from different points, were shifting in a common direction. Northern militancy was matched, at times surpassed, by a rising level of struggle in the South. In 1965 the South topped the world strike league. Strike figures rose the following year. Under this pressure the Irish Labour Party, not only grew in support but, like the NILP, began to fill out. By the end of the decade its slogan, for the future, ‘the seventies will be socialist’, illustrated that even its tops had been swayed by the radicalisation.

As well as a tendency to unity in the North, there was the beginnings of a drawing together of the Labour movement North and South. The split in the trade union movement had been healed since 1959 when the Congress of Irish Unions re-merged with the ITUC to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). The formation of the Council of Labour was another step in this process.

Civil rights agitation

World factors – opposition to the US over Vietnam, the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France, support for the Prague Spring – gave added impetus to this burgeoning socialist movement. The first months of the mass civil rights agitation from October 1968 until the end of the year saw it reach the height of its potential. Had a revolutionary leadership, with sufficient social weight to affect the situation, existed at that time, sectarianism could have been broken and both the Unionist state and its green reflection across the border could have been swept away.

For reasons explained fully in Beyond the Troubles? (by the author) and Militant publications this potential was not realised. The situation began to move in the opposite direction, towards sectarian rather than class conflict. Even then the possibility existed for quite a time that in this period of intense and turbulent mass activity, events could reverse themselves and ground lost to sectarianism could be made up.

The events of August 1969 acted as a pivot marking the change from one generally favourable period for class ideas to a period characterised by the onset of sectarian reaction. In the form of pogroms, barricades and the introduction of troops to the streets, it spelt out the real beginnings of the Troubles.

Yet even within this gathering tempest there were opportunities for socialist and revolutionary ideas to take on flesh. When the initial fighting died down large tracts of Catholic Belfast and Derry were sealed off behind barricades. For weeks the state forces, including the army, were kept out of these areas. Behind the barricades, especially in the Bogside and Creggan areas of Derry, there was intense discussion and debate about what way forward. Despite efforts by right wing nationalists to stifle this debate, the ideas of socialism held a powerful attraction.

The single issue of defence against pogroms had caused the barricades to go up. But as was shown by the 1920 general strike over the release of prisoners, a struggle begun on a single question, if deepened and developed, irresistibly raises other questions. The 1920 general strike posed the question who would run the industries, who would distribute supplies and keep order once the strike ended. The existence of the barricades likewise posed broader issues – what would be the form of the state which would eventually be allowed back into the areas, would it be a bosses state or would the working class be in control?

Had the barricades stayed in place long enough it is quite possible that, even though they started out by physically sealing Catholic workers off from Protestants, a message would arise from within them around which class unity could be rebuilt.

It was because they were aware of this that the state quite frantically leaned on all shades of ‘moderate’ and non socialist opinion, including the most hard line republicans within these areas to try to talk the barricades down. This was also the reason a significant section of the Southern ruling class decided to play the ‘green card’. They went out of their way to finance and arm a right wing section of the republican movement, both to halt the shift of republicanism to the left and to create an ogre which would repel Protestants.

The Civil Rights Movement rallied around basic demands for reforms within the state. It exploded as a mass movement in anger at the state’s response which was to baton civil rights protesters off the streets in Derry in October 1968. Overnight it became a virtual uprising of the Catholic working class, especially the youth. The message from Civil Rights ‘moderates’ may have been that this was just about reforms but the reality was that the movement was leaning much further, to complete opposition to the state.

This was no turn to nationalism, but a firmer than ever rejection of nationalism, of its symbols, of its ideas and of the individuals who put these forward. Later in the Troubles the various symbols and slogans of resistance raised in the Catholic areas would become indistinguishable one from the other but at this stage those of left and right were sharply distinct. They were raised one in opposition to the other.

When on one occasion a tricolour was raised on a Derry barricade, the defenders debated whether or not it should be there and voted to take it down. The Starry Plough was flown in the area because it was recognised to represent something different. It stood for the ideas of Connolly and of socialism.

When, at this time, the slogan of a workers’ republic was put forward it did not sit comfortably alongside the idea of a capitalist united Ireland. It was seen as a rejection of that idea and as an alternative to both the Unionist and the Southern states. The slogan of a socialist united Ireland meant specifically not capitalist unity. At this stage – before they became blurred by long association with republicanism – these socialist symbols and slogans had both meaning and content.

Protestant working class

The Protestant working class had never settled comfortably under the umbrella of Unionist rule. The 1960s saw them move in industrial and political opposition to the Stormont administration. They were frustrated and angered by the poverty, and by the class discrimination from which they also suffered. The more advanced sections of the Protestant working class were also actively repelled by the repressive and sectarian nature of the state, and by its aristocratic and reactionary overlords.

When a sectarian reaction developed among Protestants it began as a defence of the state and in opposition to democratic rights for Catholics. It was made up of people like Paisley, his eccentric adjutant, Major Bunting, the neo fascist John McKeague and others whose message was that supposed Protestant privileges should remain and that Catholics should be put back in their place.

There was not a homogenous Protestant response to the civil rights struggle. The most reactionary elements came out in violent opposition, the advanced sections of the working class and youth gave support, the great majority were unsure. Only if the defence of one state were to become mixed up with opposition to being swallowed up by another state would the majority of Protestant workers go behind the bigots.

Collision with state

Those Protestant workers involved in unions, Labour and socialist organisations had found that, since the Unionists and the state were one and the same thing, their battles with the Unionists brought them into collision with the state. While a section of backward Protestants rallied to defend the state, the more advanced and class conscious had been moving into opposition and were drawing socialist conclusions, perhaps expressed differently but essentially the same as the conclusions being drawn by the Catholic youth. Which way the broad mass of Protestant workers would move was not yet decided.

In this situation, to have pronounced that there were two nations and to have drawn the programmatic conclusions which follow from this would have been the height of folly. Militant would have ended up defending the fact of two states, arguing for socialism within the confines of each and only then putting forward the idea of a socialist federation to link the two.

This position would have cut us off from the most revolutionary section of society – the Catholic youth. We would have found ourselves arguing against their best instincts in having to defend the fact of partition. It would have left us lagging behind the most advanced of the Protestant working class, reinforcing sectarian prejudices rather than opening up class divisions.

In examining what Militant did say it needs to be borne in mind that we were a small propaganda group – hardly even that – and could reach only a layer of Catholic youth and of trade union and labour movement activists, Protestant and Catholic.

We fully supported the struggle of Catholics for democratic rights. Our difference with the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement was our insistence that this should be linked to the overall struggle for jobs, houses, decent conditions and democratic rights for all.

We stood for a socialist united Ireland linking this slogan with a call for a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland. Even then we did not raise this in the crude manner which the ultra left sects have always put it forward. We called for a conference of all Labour forces, notably the NILP and Republican Labour to build a broader socialist challenge to the Unionists. We demanded that the Council of Labour, which in the hands of the Labour leaderships was a toothless talking shop, be built into an active campaigning organisation tying together the socialist struggles, North and South. We explained that it would be out of such practical unity of the working class and of its organisations, that a new socialist society could be built in Ireland.

This general position was accepted without difficulty by the best of the Catholic youth and the most advanced Protestant workers. The question has arisen in discussion whether it would have required modification if we had won the ear of the broad mass of Protestants.

This question itself belies a mistake of method. For Militant to have gained such a broad influence presupposes a significant development of the class struggle and a raising of class consciousness among both Protestants and Catholics. Under these circumstances our ideas would have seemed more real, more concrete; they would have been backed up by the example of actual events. We would have had to explain our position skilfully – the slogan of a socialist united Ireland would not always have been to the fore. It could only have advanced as an immediate campaigning slogan when events pointed to its necessity. Perhaps a slightly different emphasis might have been given in exclusively Protestant workplaces or areas – but the position itself would have been maintained. It was the setbacks suffered by the labour movement, and the resulting lowering of consciousness which caused any subsequent difficulties with this demand.

Slogans which are crystal clear at one time can become debased and devalued as circumstances change. In discussions on our general programme we have pointed out that the slogan for Britain of ‘Labour to power on a socialist programme’ which at one time brilliantly and succinctly encapsulated our orientation and our objectives, has become meaningless. The shift to the right of the Labour leaders has been so great that the idea of them introducing socialist policies is now met with complete disbelief.

If at the outset of the Troubles, the slogan of a socialist united Ireland clearly meant not a capitalist Ireland, not so after a time. Many of the first wave of recruits to the IRA joined believing that they were fighting for socialism. But when the old guard leadership spoke as they did of a democratic socialist republic it was quite clear to those looking on that behind this mask of rhetoric they meant something different.

The situation was not helped by the myriad of self styled revolutionary groups in Britain and Ireland who, from the word go, chorused their approval of the Provos, acting as ‘socialist’ cheerleaders on the sidelines.

Inevitably the distinction between what socialists wanted and what nationalists were fighting for became hazy. In the minds of Protestants they were one and the same. With everyone talking about a socialist republic or a workers’ republic and at the same time chanting ‘victory to the IRA’ the idea of a socialist united Ireland to many meant nothing more than a united Ireland.

The purpose of slogans and of language generally is to explain and clarify. When a slogan no longer does this it is time to find a better form of words to express the same idea. The first issues of the Irish Militant, published in 1972, carried a sub-heading ‘For a socialist united Ireland’. Even at this early stage of the Troubles things had already moved so far back that this proved a barrier rather than a bridge to important sections of the working class. It was quite quickly replaced with the more finely tuned slogan ‘For workers’ unity and socialism’. The original idea was retained as the position of the organisation but was presented less in headline fashion, more through careful explanation.

More than a decade later the Anglo-Irish Agreement was interpreted by Protestants as a deal signed over their heads aimed at eventually delivering them into a united Ireland. They closed ranks in opposition.

By this time the word ‘united’ in the slogan was a barrier even to explanation. To Protestants the issue was simply yea or nay to a united Ireland – if the answer was yea in any form there would be no hope of going further to discuss the niceties of what type of society this would be. Consequently we dropped ‘united’ from the slogan and put forward the more open formula of ‘a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland’. This has served well in allowing Militant to stress the idea of a socialist society first, and then being able to deal with how it would be structured after.


48. Farrell, The Orange State, p. 221.

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Last updated: 4.1.2011