The Debacle Of Demagogy: IS/SWP and the troops in N Ireland, August 1969

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 4:51 Author: Sean Matgamna
Free Derry

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left

Section 2 of this article
Section 3 of this article

    This article is part nine of a series on the breakdown of the Northern Ireland state in 1968-9 — the biggest political crisis in Britain for a very long time, and one that shaped decades of ensuing "Troubles" — and the response of the left.

    Parts seven and eight covered the events of August 1969, when Northern Ireland erupted into civil war, barricades went up in Derry and Belfast, and British troops went on the streets; and the panicked debates at the conferences of IS (what is today the SWP) in September 1969 and April 1970.

    This article looks in more detail at what generated those debates — IS’s sudden shift in August from shouting "Troops Out" (when the troops were playing no active role), and effectively advocating Catholic-Protestant civil war, to effectively supporting the troops.


    So the crowd come, they care not what may come.

    W B Yeats


    In Northern Ireland, the British Army had quelled the fighting by supplanting the RUC and B-Specials as the mainstays of the sub-State. Welcomed by the Catholics, it surrounded the Catholic areas with a wall of military steel; but it did not attack the barricades or those who, after their recent experience, were determined to maintain them and if necessary to defend them.

    The Catholics attempted to use the fact of their secession from the Six-County state, behind barricades in Belfast and Derry, as their main political bargaining point, setting political conditions for their political "return" — for removing the barricades and letting the representatives of the Six Counties state, or rather, of the UK state, back into their territory.

    The Belfast Catholic sub-state within a sub-state was deep in the Protestant-Unionist-Orange heartland. Derry was on the border with County Donegal and the Republic of Ireland.

    Beyond demanding, in effect, the end of the Orange-Protestant Northern Ireland state, the Catholics had no perspective for what to do with their little "Free States" — other than to physically defend the barricades if or when an attempt was made to remove them.

    But no attempt was or would be made to assault them physically. The assault would be a political assault.

    A sort of dual or triple power now existed between the Belfast government, the barricaded areas, and the UK state. It was not quite the "Catholic power" that Michael Farrell had talked about in New Left Review; through the army, London had overall physical control, that is, in the last reduction, the state power.

    The political pressure to take down the barricades began immediately the Army appeared. It came from conventional Catholic politicians — though not, at first, all of them. And above all and most effectively, from the Catholic Church, whose priests and Bishops appealed to the people to take the barricades down. The Bishop of Down and Connor himself, Dr Philbin, went from his episcopal palace down amongst his slum-dwelling flock on the Falls Road to urge them to "do the right thing" — let the British Army and the RUC in.

    Urgently concerned to re-establish their own authority with the Catholics, which they feared had been shaken by events and by revolutionary, Republican, and socialist propaganda, the bishops made a formal statement on the events of mid-August, siding entirely with the Catholics.

    It took them a month to wean the Catholics from self-reliance in Belfast, and the better part of two months in Derry. Barricades were taken down on a number of occasions in both cities, but then hastily re-erected in response to communal clashes. It took the reforms now rushed through — disarming and phasing-out of the B-Specials, and the decision to disarm the RUC — to finally convince the Catholics to end their secession.

    From mid-August 1969, when Northern Ireland began to collapse into Civil War, IS’s leaders were like a driver desperately shifting gears in a car that is skidding on icy ground, the wheels unable to get traction on the surface.

    The comments, "line", and "analysis" of IS — and of the "heavy" editorials as much as, or more than, the headlines — were shaped and primed by the needs of agitation. Usually, it was shallow, thoughtless, demagogic, blustering agitation.

    But under the bluster was political abdication. Through the autumn of 1969, Socialist Worker would express its attitude to the British troops and the British state in such statements as: "when the Catholics are armed, they can tell the troops to go"; "the intervention of the British troops only allows a temporary breathing space"; the troops are "not angels"; they "won’t stay forever".

    It is never the business of socialists to give credence and political confidence in advance to promises or even progress by the bourgeois state and the ruling class. What IS said about the troops from August to October 1969 amounted to giving them and the London government enormous credit in advance. It left the organisation asserting its political "independence" by way of too often naive and foolish scoffing at the politicking that was an aspect of the British Government’s overall policy, and whose instrument the troops were.

    Now, endorsement of desirable activities by bourgeois governments is for socialists always, and rightly and necessarily so, is something that is done mainly in retrospect — an activity, so to speak, of late evening, not morning.

    But if our critical comment on what governments do, our agitation, is boneheaded and obtuse, showing us incapable or unwilling to comprehend what is going on, then it will simply not work with people who have minds and newspapers.

    Section 2 of this article
    Section 3 of this article