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Peter Hadden

Towards Division Not Peace

Phases of the Troubles


The term “peace process” is increasingly becoming a misnomer to describe developments in Northern Ireland. The political process, which grew out of the peace process, is in almost permanent crisis.

Whether or not the Assembly stays in place and the sectarian politicians stay united around the Executive table the underlying process is not towards unity or peace but towards division and conflict. The warning we gave a few years ago that what was beginning to develop could more accurately be described as a “repartition process” than a “peace process” has unfortunately been confirmed.

We are now in a new situation in the north. It is very different from what existed in the 1970s and even the 1980s. It is also in the context of a very different world situation. Those who examine current events through the distorting spectrum of an old political perspective that they learned ten or twenty years ago will get very little right.

A perspective is not a blueprint but a guide to action. And in order to be able to intervene in a situation the first and absolutely fundamental prerequisite is that we understand and analyse correctly what is taking place. Only then can we draw correct conclusions and put forward correct slogans.

The first task of this pamphlet is therefore to explain this changed situation and to define the nature of the current conflict. It is not to try to answer the unanswerable; will the Assembly survive? And for how long? Will the IRA hand over all their weapons? etc. Rather it is to clarify the underlying processes, to determine the main direction of events and to explain the real nature of the forces involved.

When the peace process began journalists and academics produced a forest of literature confidently describing this as the “endgame”. This was no more accurate than the far blown claim made just a few years earlier by Francis Fukuyama that the collapse of Stalinism marked the “end of history”.

The Socialist Party countered the illusions that were being sown in the peace process, explaining that there could be no lasting solution on the basis of capitalism. The form of the conflict could be changed, there could be interludes brought about by war weariness and exhaustion, above all the development of the class struggle could cut across nationalism and sectarianism for a whole period. But, so long as capitalism remained, the underlying problem and with it the basis for ongoing sectarian conflict would remain also.

Against the background of Drumcree, Holy Cross and the nightly battles in the so called “interface” areas there are as few takers now for the “endgame” idea as there are for Fukuyama’s view that history has ended. The peace process marked the end of the Troubles in the form they had taken for more than two decades. It did not, however, mark the end of the conflict but rather the start of a new and potentially even more tumultuous and dangerous chapter.

A particularly sectarian phase has opened. This has been a setback for the working class. The ideas of class unity and socialism have been thrown back. Sectarian ideas are now dominant especially in the working class areas. It has been an ideological as well as a physical setback. In terms of an explanation and an understanding of what is taking place there has been a triumph of the irrational over the rational. Truth and reality has been clouded in the sectarian dust storm blown up by both unionism and republicanism.

The best way to clear this ideological haze is to examine how this phase of the conflict developed and how it differs from what went before. By drawing an outline of events since the start of the Troubles in 1968 we can see where the contours of the current conflict have bent away from the past outlines. By seeing the changes we can identify more clearly the real basis of what is now taking place and the direction in which it is headed.

1968 – Revolutionary Opening

The start of the Troubles in October 1968 took the form of a mass movement of the Catholic working class and youth against the unionist government. The demand was for civil rights but the real fuel was anger at poor housing, unemployment and poverty.

This was not a sectarian movement. It was in part inspired by the wave of radicalisation taking place internationally, particularly by the revolutionary general strike that had paralysed France in May of that year. It was a revolt against the discrimination and repression that was meted out by the unionist establishment but it was also a revolt against the nationalist hierarchy; against what were looked on as the archaic and ineffective ideas of right wing nationalism, and was a movement in the direction of socialism.

This movement touched a chord of sympathy and support among layers of the Protestant population. Sections of the Protestant youth – and not only the middle class youth – were also moving in a radical direction. Some supported and participated in the early demonstrations for civil rights.

Among the working class there was an increased militancy and a growing radicalisation. There was a powerful and confident shop stewards movement capable of acting independently of the trade union bureaucracy – as the number of unofficial strikes, most of them victorious, demonstrated. The Northern Ireland Labour Party was also growing and its ranks were shifting to the left. Its roots were in the industrial working class, still mainly Protestant, but its membership and electoral support crossed the sectarian divide. There were working class Catholic areas in Belfast – Ardoyne for example – where virtually every house contained Labour voters.

From October 1968 until the spring of 1969 the potential existed to build a powerful and united class movement of Catholic and Protestant workers and of youth. This would have been possible if the demands for equal rights for Catholics were linked with the struggle for jobs, homes and decent wages for all. A united movement that could have shaken unionism and nationalism to their foundations could have been built, but only under a socialist banner.

This potential was not fulfilled – not because the working class would not support socialist ideas. It was because the leadership of the workers movement failed to put forward and fight for a socialist alternative. The trade union and NILP leaders ducked the civil rights issue and kept their distance from the mass movement. This meant they were powerless to influence it in a class direction.

The Stalinists who were held influential positions in the civil rights campaign led the charge against socialist ideas, arguing instead for limited demands that they believed would keep the Catholic middle class on board. Those on the genuine left of the movement who were pushing the ideas of class unity as opposed to “Catholic unity” had a powerful support but were inexperienced and were influenced into elementary mistakes by the infantile ideas being put forward by the various ultra left sects who were around at the time.

The net result was that the moment was lost. The various strands of opposition to the Unionist government and to the unionist and nationalist establishment could not be brought together. A revolutionary portal had opened but was missed. History always extols a price for such missed opportunities and in this case it was a particularly heavy price.

1968–1971 Countdown to the Troubles

The pogroms of August 1969, which led to the troops being put on the streets, were a turning point. August ’69 laid the seeds of the violence that was to follow. The fundamental direction of events was no longer to the left but was towards sectarian conflict. Still the wave of radicalisation that had convulsed the north after October 1968 was not completely broken: in fact the coming to power of the Tory government of Ted Heath in 1970, was followed by an upsurge of industrial militancy that swept Northern Ireland just as it swept Britain.

The difference was that these events now took place in a changed context. The working class could still have cut across the drift to conflict, but to do so they would have to make up the ground lost in August ’69 and its aftermath. They would have to regain the initiative from the sectarian forces that were already beginning to assemble.

That they proved powerless to do so was again primarily down to the role of the reformist leadership of the trade unions and to the sectarian tinged variant of reformism at the head of the NILP. The ideas of Stalinism and of ultra-leftism meanwhile continued to play a baleful role.

As a result the unspent wave of radicalisation could not find a class channel and over spilled in other directions. In particular many of the catholic youth who had consciously turned their backs on what they saw as the spent ideas of nationalism and republicanism, moved into both the Official and the Provisional IRA.

This did not represent a rejection of either the socialist ideas or of the methods of mass struggle that had dominated the earlier period. The split in the republican movement originated in the August ’69 pogroms and the failure of the old, Stalinist influenced, leadership to defend Catholic areas in north and west Belfast from loyalist attack.

The people who led the split and formed the Provisionals were right wing nationalists who were as much in rebellion against what they saw as the socialist domination of the movement as they were against the fact that the guns were not in the areas to offer defence. They represented precisely the conservative strain of nationalism that the workers and youth who had flocked to civil rights banners had explicitly turned their back on.

The youth who now joined the Provisionals retained their radicalism and, in the main, did not swallow the old republican ideology. In fact for a whole period the mainly southern leadership had to disguise its right wing and sectarian ideas with a camouflage of socialist sounding rhetoric in order to stay in tune with the northern youth who were filling out the ranks.

Nor was there an immediate basis for a return to an offensive military campaign. The civil rights struggle came after the humiliating defeat of the IRA’s border campaign of the late 1950s. Throughout the 1960s the ideas of individual terror were discredited by this failure. The civil rights struggle was a mass struggle mobilizing tens of thousands.

August 1969 was also a mass uprising with whole areas sealed off, street committees formed and the involvement of virtually the entire population in the running of the barricaded areas and their defence. When the upheaval subsided the issue of defence remained central. There was no thought of going out and mounting any kind of assault on other areas. The people in the Catholic working class areas at this time would not have tolerated a campaign of bombings and shootings carried out in their name and would have shunned those who perpetrated it.

1971–1980 The first cycle of the Troubles

It was state repression that changed the mood and for a period gave the Provisionals a mass basis of support among the Catholic working class youth. The decisive change came with the introduction of internment in August 1971 – a colossal miscalculation on the part of the ruling class – and then with the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in January 1972.

Individual terrorism is not an extension of mass struggle but its antithesis. It most often emerges when there appears to be no basis for mass action; when mass struggles appear to have failed or when a mass movement begins to ebb. For the youth in the Catholic working class areas the mass struggle for civil rights seemed to have achieved nothing. There was no let up in the poverty; mass unemployment remained, and the repressive methods of the state had intensified. Meanwhile the leaders of the unions and of the NILP were at best silent on the brutal treatment being meted out by the state.

At this time the ultra left sects in Ireland and Britain bent to the prevailing mood in the Catholic areas and, to one degree or another, backed the Provisionals. By contrast we stood against the mood and explained that the methods of individual terrorism could never succeed in overthrowing any modern state.

Although aimed at weakening the state these methods invariably strengthened it, providing an excuse for the introduction of repressive “emergency” legislation. Worse a campaign of bombs and bullets, no matter who they were aimed against, would completely alienate the Protestant working class, driving them in the direction of reaction.

It was not the intention of the majority of the Provisional rank and file to whip up sectarianism or to get drawn into a war with loyalist paramilitaries. There were times when they decided to respond to the loyalist assassinations in kind and when they were drawn into tit for tat sectarian killings. But in the main the young volunteers saw the campaign as directed against the state, against the British government and the army. They saw themselves as “freedom fighters” involved in a legitimate struggle against oppression and drew comparisons with organizations like the ANC in South Africa.

When it comes to politics and to war it is not motivation and intent but effect that ultimately matter. No matter what the intention, the effect of the IRA campaign was to provoke a furious opposition from Protestants. This was soon clear for all to see with the rapid growth of the loyalist paramilitaries in the last months of 1971 and especially in 1972. The forerunners of groups like the UDA had existed for some time. They had been responsible for the pogroms of August 1969. But up until the beginning in earnest of the Provisional bombing campaign they were relatively isolated.

The intensification of IRA activities after internment, above all the bombing of pubs in Protestant areas, dramatically changed this. A reactionary mood developed, especially in the more traditionally hard-line areas in and around Belfast. Thousands joined the UDA. Most joined in order to defend their areas, but a reactionary core, encouraged by some unionist politicians, decided to respond to the IRA with a campaign of counter terror. By 1972 loyalist bombings and brutal assassinations were begun in earnest.

The IRA campaign was based not only on false methods but on false ideas also. Those who launched it adhered to the traditional republican outlook. Britain, to them, had partitioned Ireland and was determined to hold onto the north for economic and strategic reasons. The Protestants were “dupes” of Britain who had been bribed with privileges. Once Britain was forced to withdraw the majority would come to their senses, recognize their true “Irish identity” and throw in their lot with their fellow countrymen and women.

Nothing of this was true. By this time the British ruling class would have preferred to withdraw from the north and allow reunification so that they would dominate the entire country by economic rather than direct political means. They were unable to take a single concrete step in this direction because to do so would have provoked massive Protestant resistance. Any attempt to coerce a million hostile Protestants into a united Ireland would have led to a civil war which would likely end in repartition.

The irony underlying the Provisional campaign was that by whipping up Protestant anger it was buttressing the opposition to reunification and making it even less possible for the British ruling class to contemplate moving down this road.

The IRA leadership’s military evaluation was as flawed as their political analysis. In 1972, by far the bloodiest year of the conflict, they killed around 100 British soldiers – about 90 of their own members were also killed. The military strategy, as Chief of Staff Sean MacStiofain put it, was to “escalate, escalate, escalate.”

They estimated that the British ruling class was buckling under the political and military strain and was about to withdraw. So, in July 1972 when a brief truce was called, an IRA delegation travelled to England for talks with Secretary of State William Whitelaw. The delegation did not negotiate but rather presented a list of demands which were more like surrender terms to the bemused British representatives.

This failed attempt to deal with the IRA leadership left the ruling class back with their previous policy of trying to contain them by military means. To achieve this they adopted a dual approach. With one hand they maintained an iron grip of repression on Catholic working class areas. Meanwhile, with the other they offered political concessions aimed at winning over section of the Catholic population, bolstering the SDLP and in this way isolating the IRA so as to make the military task easier. It was the strategy of the velvet glove and the iron fist.

The British ruling class had no interest in maintaining an “orange” state. From the earliest days of the civil rights agitation they had pressurized the Stormont government to make concessions in order to defuse the protests. Changes were introduced on electoral reform, on policing and in other areas but, by that time, it was all too little and too late.

With the fall of Stormont in 1972 the British government took direct charge and the state effectively became the British state. The new administrators began a process of dismantling the old practices of the “Protestant state for a Protestant people” which the unionists had created. From that moment discrimination on the grounds of religion was no longer an active policy of the state.

Instead important changes were introduced, the Housing Executive was set up and made to operate on strict criteria in housing allocation. The 1976 Fair Employment Act was intended to prevent discrimination in employment. Of course it would take more than legislation to end discrimination, especially during a period which saw a massive contraction of manufacturing jobs, not because of local factors but because of the world recession that began in 1974.

The worst unionist excesses in employment had been in the public sector, especially in local government and in the civil service. During the 1970s there was a massive expansion of public service employment. The twelve thousand employed in the civil service in the 1960s had doubled by the 1980s. The religious balance was also significantly adjusted. There were 50,000 Catholics employed in the public sector in 1990 representing 36% of the total – or 40% if jobs in the security forces and their offshoots were excluded.

True, unemployment among Catholics remained higher. Even at the start of the 1990s Catholics were still twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants although there is evidence that this gap has since narrowed. This was due to a number of factors. In part it was the residue of past discrimination. But probably the key factor was the reluctance of private companies to invest in the less accessible areas west of the Bann and along the border where a large section of the Catholic population is concentrated. As with the corresponding areas in the South this was discrimination on the grounds of profitability, not religion.

With one hand the British ruling class was delivering change aimed at removing Catholic grievances. Meanwhile with the other they were tightening the screws of repression on the Catholic working class areas and creating a whole new set of grievances in the process. The British state, intervening from the outside, adopted the old adage of the US military that if you have to intervene in a civil war pick one side to lean on – and, not just that, pick the stronger side, the one most likely to win.

While balancing to some degree between the two communities the overriding concern of successive British governments was to crush the IRA. It is true that they did take measures to rein in the loyalist paramilitaries and that from time to time Protestant working class areas were given a taste of repression. It is also true that, when it suited their political and military interests, the ruling class were prepared to use the loyalist paramilitaries to carry out assassinations, bombings and other actions.

In general the State chose to lean on the Protestants and direct the bulk of its repressive arsenal against Catholics. They did this for pragmatic reasons, not out of religious prejudice. The fact of this repression, bearing down mainly on Catholic areas, obscured the other side of what they were doing – the step by step removal of the sectarian excesses of the old unionist state.

To the mass of the Catholic population it appeared, and for understandable reasons, that nothing had changed. The ending of active discrimination in employment did not overcome the inability of capitalism to provide jobs. Under Stormont the batons of the Protestant RUC and B Specials had been reserved for Catholic skulls. The one sided use of the army shattered illusions that under Westminster control things might be different. Catholics were left to conclude that British policy was just more of the same – brute repression to prop up Unionism and through the unionist “puppets” to keep hold of the north.

This was the conclusion drawn by the Provisionals, and it is a view they have largely stuck to ever since. They have used this analysis to convince working class Catholics that they are second-class citizens and to persuade them that they have to struggle as Catholics for rights rather than fight alongside working class Protestants who, in reality, endure the same deprivation. When they argue for a struggle to achieve “equality”, they ignore the fact that, apart from the need to dismantle the repressive apparatus built up to crush the IRA, the “equality agenda” was conceded in principle three decades ago.

The Sunningdale negotiations were part of the strategy of concessions on political rights and on equal access for Catholics to what houses, jobs and services were available. What was agreed at Sunningdale in 1973 anticipated much of what the republican movement eventually signed up to in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, if anything with less constitutional concessions to unionism.

While the Irish government and the SDLP embraced the position of no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of “a majority of the people” the British Government accepted that “If in future the majority of the people of Northern Ireland should indicate a wish to become part of a united Ireland, the British Government would support that wish.”

The attempt at new political structures failed; the 1974 Assembly was brought crashing down by the Ulster Workers Council strike in May of that year and the government was forced back to a policy of repression with not much of a political veneer to disguise it. By this time the explosive wave of mass anger that had swelled both the republican and loyalist paramilitaries after 1971 had begun to wane. In its place there was a growing mood of war weariness which began to express itself in open opposition to the paramilitary campaigns.

The IRA illusion of a quick military victory was dashed. Instead of a battle with the British army and British government republicans were increasingly being drawn into a conflict with the loyalists. By the end of 1975 sections of the loyalist paramilitaries were determined to escalate their campaign of sectarian assassinations and sectarian atrocities and sections of the republican movement showed they were prepared to act in a similar manner.

They did this in opposition to the general mood which was one of disgust at the seemingly endless pattern of killings and of fear that the whole thing could overspill into civil war. At this point the working class intervened with the strikes and local general strikes against killings that gave birth to the trade union Better Life For All Campaign, begun in response to a series of atrocities carried out by republicans and loyalists at the start of 1976.

The impetus came from the still powerful shop stewards movement. When the trade union leaders took charge they placed the dead hand of bureaucracy on the Campaign. As a result this movement of the working class against sectarianism never reached its full potential.

The mood of big sections of the working class remained anti sectarian. It found other means of expression – the 1976 peace movement and the sullen indifference with which protestant workers greeted the attempts by loyalist paramilitaries and politicians to repeat their 1974 success with their failed attempt at another stoppage in May 1977.

The dropping away of support and the lack of any clear strategy left the paramilitaries isolated and floundering. Splits and feuds were on the order of the day: clear indications of the crisis that affected both republicans and loyalists. This was the period when Labour Secretary of State Roy Mason boasted that he would squeeze the IRA like a toothpaste tube. Repression, in the context of falling support, did have an effect.

The IRA was forced to reorganize, adopting a more secretive cell structure. This was more than a change of organizational form, it was an admission that the “escalate, escalate” strategy had failed, that the British were not about to withdraw, that instead of “one final push” the movement faced the prospect of a “long war” of attrition. The cycle of mass upheaval begun in the aftermath of 1969 had run its course.

1980–1990 From exclusion to inclusion – Rise of Sinn Fein

After she came to power in 1979 Margaret Thatcher continued with the hard-nosed policy of Roy Mason. During the hunger strikes of 1980-81 she squeezed too hard and gave the republican movement a significant boost. The callous attitude of the government in allowing the deaths of ten hunger strikers angered and alienated the Catholic community and ploughed a fertile political furrow for Sinn Fein.

Up to this point the republican movement had had little or no electoral support. The IRA had paid scant attention to electoral politics during the 1970s. Then, in 1981, the movement took the first steps towards a serious and determined political strategy.

They did so, not because of any worked out policy, but because they accidentally stumbled on the potential for electoral success – through the death of the abstentionist MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone. This gave the opportunity to stand Bobby Sands and appeal for a vote for the hunger strikers.

Sand’s victory and the follow up victory of his election agent, Owen Carron, demonstrated the possible political support that was there for Sinn Fein. Out of this the dual strategy, “the ballot – bomb”, was born. At the time we pointed out that the electoral and military tactics, one relying on secretive organization the other on mass mobilization, were mutually exclusive, not complimentary. Sooner or later one would come into collision with the other. What was not so clear at the time, given the long military history of republicanism, was that it would be the political methods that would come out on top.

Sinn Fein developed its support through subsequent elections by projecting a radical semi socialist image. It put forward an uncompromising position on the national question but combined this with a focus on poverty, unemployment and other social questions. It is a notable that the term “nationalist” was avoided in the election material put out in the urban working class areas. The consciousness in these areas was to the left, the “struggle” was seen as for some form of socialist Ireland. “Nationalism” still inferred the right wing and ineffective ideas that had become thoroughly discredited in the pre Troubles period.

Most of the ultra left were carried away by the rise of Sinn Fein. Some joined it believing it could be developed into a new left force. The SWP supported it in elections. Their main criticism was not its policies but the fact that republicans were turning from “struggle” to electoralism. We argued that, despite the socialist rhetoric, Sinn Fein remained at best a radical nationalist organization: that in terms of its real content it was a reincarnation of the old ideas of nationalism albeit presented in a different way.

The rise of Sinn Fein challenged the political hegemony of the SDLP among the Catholic community. In the October 1982 Assembly election Sinn Fein were already on 10.1% of the vote as compared to the SDLP’s 18.8%. If the trend continued, the ruling class strategy of isolating republicanism by bolstering their more moderate rival could end in tatters.

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Last updated: 5.1.2011