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Eamonn McCann

After 5 October 1968

(April 1972)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 51, April 1972, pp. 9–12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There are groups of socialist revolutionaries who spend their time sighing for the type of opportunity which was presented to the Left in Northern Ireland after 5th October 1968. Suddenly there was an audience tens of thousands strong, shocked out of its old attitudes, bewildered and excited by what was happening, looking for explanations, asking to be led. The Left proved incapable of taking the opportunity. The 5th October march the first significant Civil Rights demonstration had been organised by people who would have described themselves as left-wing socialists. The decision to defy the ban announced by Home Affairs Minister Craig on 3rd October was opposed by the executive of the Civil Right Association and by the overwhelming majority of those who had been even marginally involved in the prior organisation. The decision was forced through at a chaotic meeting of ‘all interested parties’ late on 4th October by two Labour Party delegates who insisted that they would march, irrespective of any majority vote to the contrary. It was a very small march. Many of the marchers were students and local teenagers. Possibly two hundred and fifty Derry adults took part.

The blood which flowed in Derry that day unleashed a howl of outrage across Northern Ireland, mobilised and momentarily radicalised the apathetic Catholic masses and brought them out into the streets, spoiling for a fight. Bogsiders. born with wounded pride in their Republican history, cursed the Government the morning after and resolved that this time they were not going to take it lying down. Yet, within a short time, the ‘revolutionaries’ who had organised the demonstration, bad lost leadership of the resultant mass movement. The original detonating group in Derry disappeared into the middle-class Citizens Action Committee, led by John Hume and Ivan Cooper, both now members of the Social Democratic & Labour Party. After that left wingers directed their attentions and hopes towards the People’s Democracy which had been founded in Belfast on 8th October. But while maintaining a separate existence, the PD too, was for a long time effectively submerged in the mainstream of Civil Rights agitation, establishing itself not as an organisation with a programme qualitatively different to that of the ‘moderates’, but as a lively and aggressive ginger group within the same broad movement. The result was that the revolutionary forces in the North, at the time when mass Catholic working-class discontent was erupting into new political formations, did not manage to convey clearly the difference between their politics and the politics of other anti-Unionist tendencies. To the mass of the people it was apparent that the PD was more militant than the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee on the Northern Ireland CRA. It was not clear what it was being militant about. This meant that Unionist spokesmen were able plausibly to suggest that the difference was this: that the ‘moderates’ were anti-Protestant; the ‘militants’ even more anti-Protestant. This was plausible because it contained a kernel of important truth. There was one sense in which the Civil Rights Movement was ‘anti-Protestant’. After 5th October the movement was demanding an end to discriminatory practices. Leading moderate spokesmen such as Hume and Fitt insisted endlessly that this was all they were demanding. In a situation in which the Protestants had more than their fair share of jobs, houses and voting power, to demand an end to discrimination was to suggest that Catholics should get more jobs, houses and voting power than they had at present – and Protestants less. This simple mathematical calculation did not seem to occur to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. But five minutes talk with a Paisleyite counter-demonstrator would have left one in no doubt that it was not missed on the Protestant working class. There never was the slightest possibility of a movement demanding ‘fair play’ in Northern Ireland engaging the support, or even securing the neutrality, of the Protestant masses. In terms of strict economics the only programme with any potential to undercut sectarianism and make contact with the consciousness of the Protestant working class would have been one which linked the demands for fair distribution of the relevant commodities to demands designed to increase absolutely the number of jobs and houses available for distribution. This would have involved campaigning for an end to the system of grants and inducement to private industry, a ban of the export of profits from Northern Ireland, direct investment in areas of high unemployment. With regard to housing it would have meant demanding the cessation of repayments by the Housing Trust and local authorities to London banks – repayments which were and are crippling the housing programme in the North and forcing rents up. In a phrase it would have involved a comprehensive anti-capitalist programme.

If any group had fought consistently for such a programme within the CR movement, it (the CRM) would have split wide open, and such a programme, hardly the normal stuff of Northern politics, would not of course, have attracted immediate mass support. At any rate, the matter was never put to the test. No such group existed or emerged. By the middle of 1969 the Left was established in the Catholic mind as those who were most impatient, who were willing to run most risks, who wanted to go along the same road as the moderates but further. It was not clear that the Left wanted to go along a different road.

Thus when Northern Ireland exploded in August 1969 the Left was still imprisoned within the sectarian strait jacket, forced to operate almost exclusively within the Catholic community but unable to give any clear lead to the Catholic masses. In Belfast the PD did not have a single person on any of the Defence committees. In Derry an ad hoc alliance of Derry Labour Party members and left wing Republicans did manage to carve out a separate minority position on the Defence Committee but, unwilling to cause a split in the barricaded area and doubtful about the extent of its own support, it never seriously attempted to wrest leadership from the moderates.

This was one of the reasons for the emergence of the Provisionals. The raging bitterness of the Catholics in Belfast especially, after the August days was certain, sooner or later, to swamp Fitt and Hume. Emotions were too strong to be contained for long within the thin shell of timid respectability. The Provisional filled the vacuum created by the effective absence of the left and the irrelevance of the right. Had there been a consistent attempt between October 1968 and August 1969 to build a vigorous socialist movement, applying and refining the half-formed ideas which motivated the organisers of the original march, then we might have had, when the explosion came, an organisation sufficiently clear in its perspectives, sufficiently confident of its politics to intervene decisively and seize the initiative. Instead, taking leadership from the Left had proved as easy as taking candy from a baby.

All of which is to present the matter in a simplistic economistic form. One does not over-estimate the objective possibilities of winning Protestant workers in 1968-9; no mass deflection from the ‘loyalist’ camp was on the cards. What is true is that the lack of open class-orientated agitation destroyed whatever potential did exist to develop some tenuous links with militant Protestant workers. Moreover, the problem was not, of course, one of mere economics. The national question, once posed, would still have polarised the two sections of the class. To be more exact, the national question posed in exclusively bourgeois terms, as a choice between rule by the Orange or rule by the Green bourgeoisie, would have inevitably split the class. And there was no possibility of the national question not being posed.

The failure of the subjectively revolutionary left to demarcate itself from middle-class civil rights politics was paralleled by and connected to, its failure to understand this. The Civil Rights movement was an understandable reaction to the pattern of discrimination, repression and institutionalised Protestant supremacy – and it was the duty of revolutionaries to support its demands for ‘democratisation’ – as far as they went. But the fact, was, and is, that Northern Ireland cannot operate ‘democratically’. It is an artificial creation containing within its territory a massive, permanently discontented minority. The struggle for ‘democracy’ was bound, sooner or later, to become a struggle against the state. By agreeing to suspend consideration of the national question, while simultaneously failing to make clear enough the class nature of its politics, the revolutionary left was helping the middle-class to peddle an illusion, the illusion that it was possible to reform N. Ireland.

It will be objected by some of those involved that the PD, in particular, far from peddling this illusion, consistently advocated the end of Unionism and the creation of a socialist Republic. And indeed, none of our speeches was complete without an invitation to go ‘Forward to the Workers’ Republic’.

But this slogan was quite detached from the day to day practice. It was, in effect, a piece of rhetoric tucked on to the end of a series of liberal demands. This manic oscillation between reformist practice and adventurist rhetoric is not uncommon in student-based groups. Projected into the mass movement, it served to preclude any possibility of winning people by consistent practice and propaganda, to a revolutionary position and delivered them up to the ‘moderate’ leadership of Fitt, Hume and the rest. There was no campaign for a socialist independent Ireland, in any meaningful sense of the word. This had a disastrous effect on the left after August 1969. It meant that when the moderate leadership was swamped, the Catholic workers did not pass into the socialist camp. There was no socialist camp there to receive them.

After the traumatic experience of August 1969 the National Question re-emerged. The mutiny of the RUC and the Specials in Belfast shattered any possibility of the Catholic communities being weaned to tolerance of the State. It was the machinery of the state itself which had threatened their destruction. Afterwards, securing the physical safety of the community meant striving to bring the state down. The Catholics in Belfast had to pose the partition issue, despite both the Left and the Right in the Civil Rights movement. In this situation there was no socialist option available. There was no movement with a base in the Catholic working class able to offer the ‘socialist Ireland’ as a remedy. Given this absence, the emergence of the Provisional was inevitable. Tens of thousands of Catholics in the North literally had no alternative but to throw up some such grouping. There are parallels with 1921. There is a folk myth account of the founding of the Northern State which holds that, in 1921, the Protestants hi the North, blackmailed and befuddled by sectarian Loyalist propaganda, chose, against their own interests as Irish people, to retain the link with Britain; that had it not been for the agitational activities of Carson and Craigavon the Protestant masses would have seen that their interest lay in joining with their fellow-countrymen to build a free Ireland. This is a misty simplification. Half a century ago the Protestants had to choose between the Union and bourgeois rule from Dublin. The protectionist economic policies of Sinn Fein, had they been applied to the North, would have bid to destroy all the Northern industrial structure. The ship-building and linen industries, cut off from sources of raw materials or markets, or both, would have gone to the wall. The loyalist posters which festooned Belfast showing the shipyards and Royal Avenue choked with weeds and inscribed ‘Belfast under Home Rule’ may have been caricature. But they contained an important element of truth. On a short-term economical basis home rule from Dublin would not have been in the interests of the Protestant masses.

It is not true that the Protestants, blinded by propaganda, made a crazy choice. They made a perfectly rational economic decision between the alternatives offered. Which is not to say that their conscious decision was based on cold economic calculation. It is to say that there was a curious economic rationality underpinning all the quasi-religious jingoism with which the Unionist case was expressed, a rationality which was not being challenged in the existing working-class movement.

It is academic to argue that there was a third alternative – the Socialist Ireland of Connolly – which would have better represented the interests of all workers. This is an attractive truism. But the Socialist Ireland was not really on offer. Connolly had not understood the necessity to build a revolutionary party (for that matter, neither, in 1916, had Trotsky). When he was executed there was no political party which could clearly be seen as the repository of his thought. In 1918 the Irish Labour Party accepted De Valera’s dictum that ‘Labour must wait’ and collapsed into an all-class national alliance. The result was that there was no credible socialist presence when the carve-up came. Just as – and for many of these same reasons – there was no credible socialist presence in August 1969.

This is not to argue that in 1921 the Protestants were ‘right’ to choose to fight for the link with Britain; in so far as such monolithic concepts are applicable they were ‘wrong’. It is to argue that in the absence of the left it was, anyway, inevitable. The vacuum which the Provisionals rilled was in the first instance a physical one. The adhesion of the Republican leadership to the crazy Stalinist ‘stages’ theory had disarmed the community. Arms were needed and the Provisionals eventually supplied them.

The role of the Republican leadership pre-1969 does not fall within the orbit of this piece. It can be said, however, that they had helped to disarm the community politically as well as militarily. Grafting the crude Stalinist theorising of Roy Johnston et al. onto the republican tradition, they strove to guide all mass agitation in the North into a struggle for ‘democratisation’. They, too, denied vehemently that the national question was of any relevance. And, in their efforts to build a ‘broad-based movement for reform’, they emerged as the most bitter opponents of suggested agitation within the civil rights movement on economic class issues. If the PD and its fellow-travellers failed to see the need to link the socialist and republican struggles together, the Republicans chose not to see any immediate need for either. The Provisionals did not fight for and win the leadership of the national struggle. They did not have to. There was no competition. They developed as the leadership of the national struggle.

The absence of a movement in the South was crucial. Without such we could not fight bourgeois nationalism, even had we set out much more rigorously to do so within the North. One cannot fight bourgeois nationalism if one is not part of a struggle against that section of the national bourgeoisie which is actually in power. Obviously, without a struggle against the set-up in the South, it was in effect impossible for us to drive a wedge between ourselves and the northern Catholic middle-class.

The southern bourgeoisie, as clients of British Imperialism, could not fight British Imperialism. Within the southern state it presided over the intensifying day-to-day exploitation of the working-class. It had to be attacked on both these fronts and the link between the two demonstrated. Only by linking the two together could the socialist content of our anti-imperialism be demonstrated. And only by doing that could the grip of orange ideology on the northern Protestant working-class be loosened.

This was illustrated by the most elaborate single attempt to ‘extend the fight to the south’ – the PD’s Belfast-Dublin march in April 1969. The marchers swung into O’Connell Street chanting, pithily enough, ‘Lynch Lynch! Lynch O’Neill!’ What they meant was that O’Neill and Lynch represented two equally oppressive Tory regimes and that the working class in each area ought to rise up and eject them. But what the people standing in O’Connell Street understood it to mean was different – that O’Neill was a Unionist and therefore had to be brought down. And that Lynch had to go because he was insufficiently militant in pursuing this objective. The difference between the revolutionary left and Fianna Fail was not seen in terms of the kind of societies they aimed at. It was seen almost exclusively in terms of the intensity with which they were willing to attack the regime in the North. In a phrase, the link between the anti-Republicanism of Lynch, and the anti-working-class motives of his policies was not demonstrated. This is how the Protestants saw it and were encouraged to see it by their leaders. (And there were indications that others shared the assessment. Once after making a fierce and, I thought, a rather effective attack on the Southern Government at a meeting in Bogside I was given an Irish fifty-pound note by a prominent member of Fianna Fail who said that he supposed I could find use for it. Clearly he did not feel threatened.)

This resulted in total confusion. On the one hand we were more or less denying that the national question was on the agenda at all. On the other we were seen to be attacking the southern regime for failing to live up to its stated national aspirations. Nowhere were we illustrating in action the class nature of our objections to Fianna Fail. In August 1969 in the Bogside it was stated from a socialist platform (a) that Lynch was a traitor because he had not sent his troops over the border when we needed them; and that (b) if he had sent them over we would have opened up a ‘second front’ to repel them. In the circumstances it is difficult to imagine what the listeners made of this.

A credible attack on the class nature of Fianna Fail could have been mounted only by an organisation which was seen to be engaged in a day-to-day economic struggle against it. This would have required an all-Ireland organisation, the southern section of which was not directing its own and others attention to the North, but was taking up issues of wages, rents and unemployment in the South and linking these to the anti-imperialist struggle, the front line in Ireland of which was in the North. No such organisation existed, and between October ’68 and August ’69 there was no consistent attempt to build it.

The Left did not fail between ’68 and ’69 for lack of effort. While prominent ‘moderates’ were circling one another, daggers in hand, each wondering into which back it might most profitably be plunged, the PD was directing more energy into the struggle than any other single tendency. In Michael Farrell it had at the helm possibly the most determined political operator in Northern Ireland. The loose left group in Derry was frenetically active. The very ‘effectiveness’ of the original strategy was one of the things which derailed the Left. In Derry before 5th October we had been working on a conscious, if unspoken, strategy to provoke the authorities into overreaction and thus spark off a mass response. We certainly succeeded. But when the mass response came we were not capable of handling it.

Socialist revolutionaries get used to talking to audiences numbered in tens. When we were confronted with an audience tens of thousands strong our reaction was to abandon the attempt to win people, if necessary in ones and twos, to a hard political position, and instead to try to exert some general influence over a broad, relatively political movement. The Young Socialist Alliance, the semi-clandestine core of PD in the first three months of PD’s existence, was, by majority vote, dissolved on 31st December 1969, the night before the Burntollet march.

In a phrase, we lacked a revolutionary Marxist party and did not understand the necessity of building one. The events of the last four years in N Ireland demonstrate that mass ‘influence’ or prominent involvement in mass agitation is, despite sometime appearances, meaningless and fruitless unless one is, in the process, forging the political instrument necessary to lead such agitation to conclusive victory over the opposing force. This is not a lesson for revolutionaries in Ireland alone.


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