Northern Ireland 1969: When Socialists Looked to "Catholic Power"

Submitted by martin on 27 November, 2007 - 12:08 Author: Sean Matgamna

This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 5)

    For part 2 of this article: click here

    This article is the fifth in a series by Sean Matgamna about the British left and the events in Northern Ireland in 1968-9 — the biggest internal crisis the British state has seen since the early 1920s.

    Previous articles have sketched the main events from the beginning of timid reform from above, to the emergence of a mass civil rights movement of the long-downtrodden Catholic minority in 1968, and the explosion into bloody communal conflict in 1969.

    They have also introduced the main political forces surveyed — the IS (forerunner of the SWP); the Trotskyist Tendency inside IS (forerunner of the AWL); People’s Democracy (a loose left grouping set up in Belfast in 1968, where sympathisers of IS were influential); and the Irish Workers’ Group which had vanished earlier in 1968.

    The last article looked at the coverage of Northern Ireland in Socialist Worker up to the Northern Ireland general election of 24 February 1969.

    ***
    Before reviewing the rest of what Socialist Worker had to say on Northern Ireland, as events there moved to the breakdown of mid-August 1969, we need to move “away” from the hurly-burly of week-by-week agitation in Socialist Worker and see what IS had to say about Northern Ireland, and what IS was trying to do, on the level of theoretical generalisations.

    We must also try to get a picture of what IS’s close comrades in Northern Ireland, the leaders of People’s Democracy, thought they were doing.

    The first we can do by looking at an article in the IS magazine in April/May 1969, written by John Palmer and Chris Gray. This was, sort of, the “theoretical assessment” called for in IS’s first (December 1968 Executive Committee) discussion on Ireland. It seems, from the text, to have been written in January 1969, and therefore is an aspect of what we have called IS’s “first position”.

    What the leaders of PD thought they were doing was fixed for posterity in a recorded discussion involving Eamonn McCann (who was ambivalent about PD), Michael Farrell, Bernadette Devlin, Cyril Toman, and Liam Baxter, presided over by Antony Barnett and published in New Left Review (no.55, May/June 1969) at about the same time as IS published the article by Palmer and Gray.

    First, Palmer and Gray. I remember not liking the official “theoretical” underpinning of IS’s Irish work. But ancient memory could not prepare me for reacquainting myself with it.

    An uncorrected typo in the text indicates that it had been written for publication as a pamphlet. It is not an attempt to look afresh at Ireland, and Northern Ireland, in the light of what was happening, but a crude Catholic-Nationalist propaganda rehash, laced with inappropriate bows to working-class politics.

    It manages to combine learned footnotes about the origin of the word Tory — a 17th century Gaelic word for freebooter or robber — with only minimal attempts to analyse the current situation in any Marxist sense.

    It consists of a rushed harum-scarum tour back through Irish history, seen through the lens of traditional middle-class nationalism, but with peculiar bits all its own. It casually picks up and repeats the barebones “Marxist-as-economic-reductionism” explanation for the division of the Irish people (the South wanting tariffs, the North did not) which was then being put into circulation by a Stalinist-Maoist organisation, the British and Irish Communist Organisation.

    BICO took it from the book Irish Nationalism and British Democracy (Columbia University Press, 1951) by the Austro-Marxist Erich Strauss, and in fact it became the established “economic Marxist” explanation on the left. The Trotskyist Tendency favoured an “economic” explanation from the refusal of the capitalists in north-east Ulster to pay for buying out the landlords in a Home Rule Ireland (eventually, the British state did the buying-out). I still think that was a better “economic” explanation — has more truth in it — but any account that sinks the history, culture, and historically-formed identity of the Scottish-English colony in north east Ireland into such “bottom-line” economic explanations is a caricature of Marxism.

    Palmer’s and Gray’s working notion of Marxism is a very blunt economic determinism. It takes no note of what Engels wrote:

    “The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure... also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form”.

    They use the crudest of kitsch-Marxist schemata and categorisations, and the prefabricated language of Stalinism and Maoism rather than that of Marxism, for example going on about the “national bourgeoisie”.

    The article is full of pietistic judgements and categorisations, both nationalist and workerist. What concerns us here is what it had to say about Northern Ireland and the politics of 1969.

    On the historical and geographical anatomy of the origin of the Six Counties, the story Palmer and Gray tell is of the Orangeists having to capture enough Catholics to give them a Catholic agricultural hinterland, and then repression and gerrymandering following on that.

    In the Boundary Commission of 1924-5 “it became clear that there was a contradiction between the ‘wishes of the inhabitants’ and the ‘economic and geographical conditions’ obtaining. By the former reckoning at least two counties (Tyrone and Fermanagh) would have joined the Free State by the vote of the predominantly Catholic population in those areas. Parts of the Counties of Londonderry, Down and Armagh also contained Catholic majorities which, it could be argued, deserved inclusion in the Free State.

    However, even with four counties out of six the Orange enclave would not have been viable economically: there would not have been sufficient agricultural hinterland. On the other hand the inclusion of all nine Ulster counties (i.e. the addition of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan) would have swamped the Protestant population... So, by another grand old British ‘compromise’ the boundary as fixed at the Truce was agreed upon...”

    The idea that without the Catholic-mjajority areas the Six Counties would have been unviable was shared by the Trotskyist Tendency, and was the prevailing idea in Catholic-nationalist anti-Partition propaganda, for example in the influential 1957 book by Frank Gallagher, The Indivisible Island. But it was nonsense, on a par with the other Catholic-nationalist “economic” argument that the Six and 26 Counties went together as industrial and agricultural units in a balanced economy (which ignored the fact that most Six Counties industrial production was for the world market).

    The “unviability” argument was a figment of historical “rationalisation” — a product of the thought that the Protestants did it, and therefore they must have had good economic reasons for doing something that created great problems for the “Protestant state” with its unwieldly Catholic-nationalist minority.

    The true explanation, if I understand it, is that when men like the Unionist leader Edward Carson, a Southerner, talked (as they did) of there being “two Irish nations”, they identified “their” nation not with the population of north-east Ulster only but with a Protestant community scattered throughout the 32 Counties.

    To their minds the “Protestant nation” was entitled to as much of the island as it could get. They were used to coercing the whole island, which, even in the era of reform from above that opened in 1869 with the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland by Gladstone, routinely had whole districts under emergency police rule. The prevailing imperialist ethos of 1920 influenced them to underestimate the problem they would face as a result of keeping Catholic-majority areas in the Six Counties.

    One of the great changes by 1969 was that the brutal rule of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its auxiliary sectarian militia, the B-Specials, which they could and did exercise from the 1920s through to the 1950s, was no longer politically acceptable in the UK. Especially when, as on 5 October 1968 in Derry, the brutality was exercised in front of TV cameras.

    The following passage in Palmer/Gray is one of many similar ones giving their picture of the Northern Ireland regime.

    Over the years this whole apparatus of counter-revolution has been used to keep the Catholic population from getting the upper hand and voting or forcing the Six Counties to join the South.

    How could a Catholic minority of about one third of the population get the “upper hand” in the Six Counties? How could they vote the Six Counties into a united Ireland? How, except in IRA fantasy, could they “force” the Six Counties “to join the South”?

    There is not a hint of the starting-point of the age-old “Irish Question” in modern history — the existence of a minority on the island who felt culturally and religiously and nationally distinct from the Catholic-nationalist majority. Because of its British protectors, that minority was able to create a Six Counties state where the Catholic-Protestant ratio on the island as a whole was neatly inverted, with the creation of an artificial Catholic minority in the Six Counties.

    In fact, the Catholic minority in the Six Counties was a bigger proportion of the population there than the Protestants of all Ireland would have been in a majority-ruled united Ireland.

    Palmer and Gray say rightly that the Catholic minority was, and had good reason to be, opposed to the Six Counties in its entirety. But there is not a hint of the fundamental issue of Irish-national-minority rights that continued, hidden behind the grotesque realities of the rule by Ireland’s minority in their own “Protestant state for a Protestant people”. In fact, that remained and remains the basic problem: any democratic resolution of the conflict ultimately must depend on a rational accommodation of the rights of the island’s national minority.

    A proper theoretical article, a “scientific” exposition as distinct from crude, one-sided agitation, would be concerned to understand, and would present an objective picture of relations and interests in the Six Counties and in Ireland as a whole. It would, in assessing the whole picture and the historical roots of the problem, take into account the fact that the 26 Counties had developed into the blatant “Rome Rule” of the worst nightmares of the minority.

    Palmer and Gray implicitly included that fact in their conclusions (that only under socialism would a united Ireland be feasible, acceptable to Protestants), but they “forgot” it when it came to the history and the basic explanations.

    They did, however, explain about anti-Catholic discrimination in jobs in Northern Ireland.

    As regards employment, we have the noble example of [Northern Ireland prime minister] Sir Basil Brooke (later Lord Brookeborough), who said ‘I am proud to say that I have never employed a Roman Catholic in any position on any of my estates’ and who urged ‘loyalists’ to discriminate in favour of ‘good Protestant lad and lassies’ because, he said, the vast majority of Roman Catholics were ‘disloyal’. He explained this by saying ‘Unless you act properly, before we know where we are, we shall find ourselves in the minority instead of in the majority’.

    He need not have worried, recounted Palmer and Gray, because affairs are so well organized that the emigration rate among Catholics is six to ten times greater than that of Protestants. Unemployment also is higher in Catholic areas.

    The Socialist Worker editorial of 11 January 1969 had described the whole of Ireland as suffering “colonial status”. The “theoretical article”, more moderately, called Ireland a “neo-colony”; but it then went over into a populist economic nationalism that was taken from the Stalinists, an adoption of the criterion of national economic self-sufficiency and the supposed need for each “viable” nation to have its own manufacturing industry, including heavy industry.

    The Treaty gave the Free State the right to build up its own industry by means of protective tariffs, but the country was left with large sections of its economy dependent on the British market, and with its banking services also under the control of British imperialism. The Free State was thus a neo-colony of Britain...

    Palmer and Gray do not say this because they were ignorant of Ireland’s economic history, but because of the “model” in their heads of what is “normal” and proper to an independent state, a “model” which Ireland could never match.

    They add: “... despite the fact that it was itself a creditor country with some £200 million invested abroad by 1924... Under these circumstances it proved impossible to create a capitalist industry...

    The most concerted attempt to build an independent Irish capitalism was carried out by Eamon De Valera and his Fianna Fail Party which rose to power in 1932... Regulations were introduced whereby companies operating in the Twenty-six Counties were required to be under native capitalist control... State-sponsored bodies (ESB, Irish Sugar Co. etc.) were set up where they did not conflict with established manufacturing interests.

    But the programme registered only a limited success, and over the years the prospect of Green capitalism surviving in its minuscule home market decreased..."

    It reads very oddly today, when the 26 Counties has the highest output per head in the European Union. In any case, for Marxists — for the Theses on the National and Colonial Question of the Comintern’s Second Congress (1920), for example — the fundamental fact is that so long as the market regulates the relationship between big and small, developed and underdeveloped, industrialised and non-industrialised countries, real equality between them is impossible.

    Populist nationalists — in Latin America, for example, and in Ireland — conclude from the inequalities that “real” national independence requires “economic” independence. De Valera’s “autarkic” economic policies from 1932-58 were a variant of that. Here populist nationalism helps tie the working class to the vain petty-bourgeois quest for an utopian and reactionary “economic independence” cut off from the world market.

    Palmer and Gray go on: The moment of truth arrived in 1958 when Sean Lemass, who had inaugurated the Control of Manufactures Acts as Minister for Industry and Commerce under De Valera, dismantled his own Acts and embarked on a programme of attracting foreign capital... a Free Trade Agreement was signed with Britain in 1965, opening hitherto protected sectors of the economy to competition from Britain...

    They do not seem to notice that their description of the 26 Counties after 1958 and the opening up to foreign capital contradicts what, to Republican and Irish nationalist readers, they have retrospectively endorsed — the 25-year attempt to cut off from the world market.

    Palmer and Gray examine O’Neill’s moves for reform from above in Northern Ireland. It would be difficult for anyone but John Palmer — an economic journalist on the Guardian by profession — to concoct a more concentrated tissue of politics from which all thought has been banished by agitational convenience than the one that follows:

    ... Developments have changed the attitude of the big battalions of British capitalism towards the Southern regime... The dismantling of the police state regime in the North... is necessary to protect the political stability of the Southern regime, threatened as it is by the highest strike rate in Europe, plus the latent violence of industrial and agrarian struggles, plus the growth of the disturbingly radical southern Labour Party, plus, above all, the need to discipline somehow the southern Irish working class, which, given the sellers’ market for labour following the influx of foreign capital, has forged ahead economically as well as politically.

    In this situation there is the added danger that the Civil Rights movement in the North may fall into the hands of those emerging as the alternative in the south — those republicans moving towards working-class (Marxist) politics...

    Strikes in the South threatened the regime? Not the government, though even that idea would be fantastic, but the regime?

    The southern Labour Party was radical only in words. The Republicans “moving towards Marxist politics” were the Stalinist-controlled Sinn Fein and its rump IRA (from which the Provisional IRA would hive off at the end of 1969). The Stalinists had been a major force in the civil rights movement from the beginning.

    While De Valera was in power there was always the chance that he might choose a radical solution to the Irish problem, and certainly he was not likely to surrender as much as Jack Lynch has to British interests. But Dev is now out of the way, Lynch is functioning as a good policeman for Britain, and there is therefore no need of a policeman in the North to watch him, as there was when the Treaty was signed.

    The idea that De Valera (who had been Taoiseach up to 1959, and was president in 1969) “might choose a radical solution to the Irish problem” means what, exactly? An invasion of Northern Ireland? The idea was fantasy, contradicted by De Valera’s three decades as premier. It emerges here as part of the populist-nationalist strain in Palmer’s and Gray’s article — the “nostalgic note”.

    O’Neill then found himself faced with pressure from Wilson and from progressive opinion in England to grant some reforms... This raises the political temperature, and simultaneously alarms the fundamentalist Orange elements headed by the Rev. Ian Paisley. The problem is to grant enough reforms to satisfy Wilson without at the same time raising a demand for even greater reforms.

    The article was (I deduce) written at the beginning of 1969, but not before there was more than enough evidence to show that the civil rights movement could not unite Catholic and Protestants. Yet Palmer and Gray write:

    There is the danger of the emergence of a very dangerous combination for the Orange capitalists, a combination active in 1798, glimpsed in 1907 when Larkin was operating in Belfast, and now threatened by the ability of the Civil Rights Movement to break out of the Orange-and-Green straitjacket designed by Unionist propaganda to contain onslaughts on the regime from any quarter by branding all opposition as ‘disloyal’ [that is, Catholic-Irish nationalist].

    This combination, this final spectre, is a united Protestant-Catholic revolutionary movement. The basis for it is not lacking, since Protestant workers also suffer from unemployment (textiles and shipbuilding) and are subject to the manipulations of Unionist local authorities, as for example in Derry, where slum clearance in Protestant areas carries the danger of upsetting the carefully gerrymandered arrangement of voters.

    This, then, is the ultimate time-bomb on which O’Neill and the rest of them are sitting, which explains why they need Doctor Paisley... to keep the Protestant workers faithful to the end. Similarly they need Messrs MacAteer and Austin Currie, the official Nationalist ‘Green Tories’, as a buffer against the militants on the Catholic side.

    This deliriously optimistic assessment lacks any concrete picture of the interaction of the real Orange and Green workers in the real Six Counties, where the movement of the Catholics for limited civil rights (not the “socialist” or social civil rights movement towards which Palmer and Gray grope, but the real civil rights movement) had alienated the Protestants.

    The Trotskyist Tendency, at the time, called this sort of political raving “Catholic Economism” (the idea that Catholic nationalism would semi-automatically slide into socialism, just as the Russian “Economists” of about 1900 thought that trade-union militancy would semi-automatically slide into socialism).

    The ultra-optimism clothed the very limited real civil rights movement, and an elemental movement of Northern Ireland Catholics which was far from non-sectarian (as Eamonn McCann would point out in the NLR discussion), in fantastic extrapolations. Palmer and the IS leaders related not to the actual, but to an imaginary, civil rights movement.

    Their conclusion? “The big question is whether the [civil rights] movement can develop on the basis of working-class unity in a revolutionary socialist direction, whether, in short, some sort of transitional programme can be worked out which will carry the day against the present bourgeois leadership”.

    But in January, when (I guess) this article was written, not to speak of three months later when it was published, it was already plain that there was no “question” about the civil rights movement developing into a united working-class movement! None at all.

    The notion that “some sort of transitional programme” could “carry the day against” — subvert, bypass, eliminate — the “present bourgeois leadership” was a search for magic slogans and “abracadabra” solutions. It reprised one of the malign characteristics of those post-Trotsky “orthodox Trotskyists” to whom the IS leaders felt so much superiority.

    In fact the “programme” of the IS leaders and their closest comrades in Northern Ireland was “militancy”.

    Palmer and Gray outline the four points from the January 1969 IS National Committee:

    1) The withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland; 2) no UK arms for police and B-Special thugs who are increasingly allied with Paisleyites; 3) an end to the subsidies paid by the British Government to support the Orange Tory police state; and 4) the right of the Irish people to national self-determination.

    They continue: It is arguable that if these demands were successful the result would not necessarily be the socialist revolution, but we must make it clear that the right of self-determination is not conditional on the creation of a socialist republic.

    Arguable? The idea that these four “demands” could have anything to do with a socialist revolution is fantastic! And it was the IS leaders who were making self-determination conditional on the pre-existence of a socialist Ireland.

    The interpretation put on point 4 — that “it allows for a possible decision by the whole people of Ireland to merge the two statelets on the basis of some degree of autonomy for the northern Protestants” — is very interesting for its idea of “some degree of autonomy for the northern Protestants”, but limits self-determination to a decision by “the two statelets”. It is not self-determination as proposed, discussed, and adopted by the IS National Committee.

    That the NC decision could be construed like that in the major statement of IS’s position is an indictment of what IS democracy was even in its best days.

    Palmer and Gray conclude: “History leaves little option but for the working class to take the lead in the battle for democracy and self-determination in Ireland. The objectives of this struggle are bound to take on a socialist coloration if the role of the defeatists and appeasers is successfully combatted. We in Britain can only gain strength and inspiration from this struggle.”

    The civil rights struggle would become the Irish socialist revolution? The more clued-in reader can note the word “coloration” as a sceptical reserve; but that civil rights would grow into socialist revolution is exactly what is said here to most IS members and others who read the article.

    As I have said, the article by Palmer and Gray seems to have been written some time in January. God knows, given the considerable resources of the group and the importance the IS leaders attached to the Irish work, why it took months to appear. The joke is that by the time it appeared, it was out of date. IS was moving on to “IS position number two”, in which the workers’ republic slogan (rejected in January) would be central to agitation.

    The New Left Review discussion was held in Derry on the evening of 20 April, while serious fighting was going on in the city. By 20 April the participants had had over six months, since 5 October — and in terms of what had happened, six months of tremendous experience — to get their political bearings.

    The discussion is important in the history of the times for what it tells us of those who played a big part in shaping events there. It is important for our concerns here in that it establishes the way those to whom IS accommodated saw events and their own role in them.

    Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman were those to whom IS accommodated. Eamonn McCann had different politics — or at least the aspiration to different politics — and was, as the discussion shows plainly, at odds with Farrell and the Belfast people. McCann wrote only a couple of reports in Socialist Worker in 1969.

    The important confrontation of ideas and attitudes in the discussion was between McCann and Farrell. Toman played Robin to Farrell’s Batman. He did not represent a distinct viewpoint.

    Bernadette Devlin had just been elected as the (Catholic) “Unity” candidate for Mid Ulster. She had been a socialist for less than a year, and was still very raw and politically naive. She seconded McCann as Toman did Farrell.

    Liam Baxter contributed little except the idea that Cuba would be a socialist model for Ireland to follow.

    These were “student leaders”, but it is important to note that the key people were not students nor, as revolutionary activists go, especially young. McCann was 26, Farrell 25, Toman 26.

    McCann was highly critical and self-critical of what they had done and left undone. He was eclectic and (so I deduce from what he said about the impossibility of progress because of “the crisis of capitalism”) somewhat influenced by the “third period” SLL of that time, for which “the crisis” ruled out the possibility of any progress, short of the socialist revolution. He was in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and had (platonically) more “Trotskyist” views that the others.

    Farrell is the interesting one. His activities, such as the Long March, had shaped events in the previous months. He was thinking out loud about the situation and its possibilities and was, evidently, free from any Trotskyist “political baggage”.

    What he says about developing a revolutionary organisation — about the desirability of organising on a loose left-consensus basis rather than a clear programme — had marked continuity with what Mick Johnson had argued in the Irish Workers’ Group, summing up the views of the “anti-Trotskyist coalition” in the IWG of which Farrell had been part.

    There would be some dispute in the future about whether the Young Socialists in Belfast had been “liquidated” at the start of PD. McCann would say yes, the others no. There is no doubt that the key people from the YS worked together. The fact, though, is that the decisive “liquidation” had been that of the Irish Workers’ Group. That began very soon after the September 1967 IWG Annual General Meeting, with the faction fight in which the nature of the organisation and its future was a central issue, and culminated a year later in the formal dissolution of the IS-controlled rump of the IWG.

    The people round Farrell had not only gone along with Gery Lawless’s “Pabloite” ruminations about a revolutionary party not being necessary (which is not surprising, of course: they were pre-return-to-Lenin IS in their politics), but backed the programme of splitting the IWG and the “coup” with which it began (a committee of three, including Gery Lawless and his wife, “expelled” Liam Daltun, Rachel Lever, and myself).

    The discussion opened with Antony Barnett asking what PD was.

    Farrell: PD is not just part of the Civil Rights movement, it is a revolutionary association. Its formation was considerably influenced by the Sorbonne Assembly [before the French general strike in May 1968] and by concepts of libertarianism as well as socialism. It has adopted a very democratic type of structure; there is no formal membership and all meetings are open... I think it will be necessary, within the overall framework, to find a way of introducing a little more co-ordination.

    I had hoped that the PD would realise the necessity of taking a stand on class issues, and would... transform itself into a broadly socialist body, though a non-sectarian one in which socialists of several different tendencies could co-operate. I no longer think this will happen of its own accord.

    There have recently been some sharp disagreements within PD... between socialists and an alliance of anarchists and right wingers…. Right from the start the Young Socialist Alliance was the core of Peoples’ Democracy. It involved three of the people who are here now.

    Barnett: Your central demands appear at first sight to be reformist — one man, one job and one family, one house. Why have you focussed on these specific issues?

    McCann thought the PD slogan ammounted to a “transitional programme” (though he did use the term here). Because the transformation of Irish society necessary to implement these reforms is a revolution. We are definitely in a prerevolutionary situation in the north. The Unionist Party must give something to the pope-heads of Derry to get them off the streets, but if they give them anything the Unionist party will break up. So by supporting these demands in a militant manner, we are supporting class demands and we are striking hard against the ruling political party.

    This manages both to focus on the Catholic-Protestant divide and to pretend it isn’t there! As part of the Catholic civil rights movement all such demands had the effect of polarising Catholics and Protestants, and therefore tending to sink class divisions on both sides into the sectarian blocs. Also, it was not true that concessions to the Catholics, as such, would necessarily split the Unionist party (as distinct from hiving off splinters).

    The explosive force would come from the Orange backlash (which was stimulated by the militant civil rights movement). In the end the Unionist Party would indeed be broken up, at the cost of a massive — and, for the working class, crippling — increase in sectarian polarisation.

    Farrell: Our general strategy in the past was that we should enter into the Civil Rights movement in order to participate in the mobilization and radicalization of the Catholic working class, and to radicalize the civil rights demands themselves. We should now move forward in two ways.

    1. We should complete the ideological development of the Catholic working class. 2. We should develop concrete agitational work over housing and jobs to show the class interests of both Catholics and Protestants.

    We have delayed far too long trying to develop the ideology of the Catholic working class and agitating on specific class issues. It is certainly now time that People’s Democracy became an organization capable of carrying out this agitational work...

    The manipulative idea of what revolutionaries do implicit in Mick Johnson’s argument in the IWG is clearly and unembarrassedly expressed here.

    What should PD move on to? “Producing leaflets and — more important — a paper which carries analyses of that situation”

    McCann has the more clear-headed realisation of how things stand. He is not, on the level of ideas, a “Catholic Economist”.

    Click here for continuation.