This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 5, section 2)
Next article in this series: Part 6: SWP (IS) and Northern Ireland in 1968-9: Advocating civil war — until it starts!
McCann: We have failed to get our position across. We keep saying parrot-like that we are fighting on working-class issues for working-class unity, that our objective is a workers’ and farmers’ socialist republic.
But when you say to the people in the Bogside area in Derry that they are being exploited because they are workers not because they are Catholics, they are not very inclined to believe you. All their lives they have been told by the Unionist Party that this is a Protestant state for Protestant people, and that pope-heads will be beaten into the ground if they dare to open their mouths.
Moreover a number of jumped up opportunist nationalist politicians who have been the only means of expression of Catholic discontent... have deepened the religious divide. The consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian…
As revolutionary socialists we have been used, through the years, like revolutionary socialists in England, to talking to tens of people. Now suddenly, since October the 5th, we have found that we have an audience... of tens of thousands of people. We got carried away by this, and submerged the Young Socialist Alliance in the PD; we submerged our politics into the Civil Rights movement. All that we managed to get across was that we were more extreme than the Civil Rights people…
We failed absolutely to change the consciousness of the people. The consciousness of the people who are fighting in the streets at the moment is sectarian and bigoted…
Talking about the socialists suddenly getting a huge audience, McCann might have been describing the situation of the Russian Social-Democrats (Marxists) after the outbreak of the 1905 revolution, and may have known it. The difference in the preparation of the Russian socialists is the telling difference.
The Bolsheviks had built an organisation of educated militants, and therefore could function and lead. The liquidation of the Marxist organisation in 1967-8 had the opposite effect for the socialists in Northern Ireland.
Farrell still doesn’t realise where things are at politically (and, to judge from his retrospective account, in his essay in the book Twenty Years On, never will). We have radicalized the Catholic working class to quite a considerable extent, and in some degree got across to them the necessity of non-sectarianism and even the fact that their Protestant fellow worker is almost as much exploited as they are. But we have failed to get across at all to the Protestant working class. So there is now a more radicalised Catholic working class, whilst the Protestant proletariat is still as remote and inert as ever.
McCann: I think this assessment is very wrong... I believe that we have failed to get our position across in the last six months. It is perfectly obvious that people do still see themselves as Catholics and Protestants, and the cry ‘get the Protestants’ is still very much on the lips of the Catholic working class. Everyone applauds loudly when one says in a speech that we are not sectarian, we are fighting for the rights of all Irish workers, but really that’s because they see this as the new way of getting at the Protestants.
Devlin. Our real difficulty is the support we get from people who are opposed to the Unionist party, not because it is capitalist, but because they associate it with having oppressed them because they are Catholics. Despite the fact that we are socialist we still get a lot of support from Catholic capitalists and bigots... The basis on which we can communicate with the Protestants is by being honestly socialist.
Devlin was sincere in this. For instance, she — and McCann too — would denounce the civil rights leaders from a platform she shared with them at a three thousand strong rally for civil rights in Strabane (Derry Journal, 1 July 1969).
Barnett asked the leaders of the militant civil rights movement: “To what extent have you leafleted the Protestant areas you will be actually marching through, explaining to them that that the march is not meant as an aggression against them?” That is, to what extent had they acted as other than Catholic civil rights activists?
McCann knows and says: Absolutely none. Only occasional, half-hearted efforts have ever been made at doing this. We have never had a perspective here... All our failures spring from the lack of anything even resembling a revolutionary party...
But for Farrell, PD, which he has already described as the loosest of organisations, is nonetheless a potent force to deal with this problem.
Farrell. People’s Democracy could issue such a leaflet... People’s Democracy could do it in Belfast and it could do it in Derry too, because the People’s Democracy idea exists in Derry and that would give it enough following to allow you to issue such a leaflet.
McCann and Devlin do not find this mystical concept of “PD” or “the PD idea” sufficient; but they see little prospect of creating a revolutionary organisation.
Devlin: We are totally unorganized and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves. I’d say that there are hardly two of us who really agree, and it will take a lot of discussion to get ourselves organized. The fact of the matter is that everybody knows where they don’t want us to go, but nobody really knows what they do want and nobody is prepared to organize: we are all madly tearing off — nowhere.
McCann. As I’ve already said, the reason we have no organization is that we effectively dissolved ourselves politically into the Civil Rights movement: so effectively, in fact, that we have nothing to recruit people into once they have been radicalized by that movement. It has been a crucial error and a grievous one.
Farrell, now in passing, reveals one of the “secret ingredients” in the ability of PD to do things like the Long March. The Republicans — in the manipulative tradition of the Fenians and the “front”-creating of the Stalinists who now dominate the Republican movement — have been a great help.
The Republicans have been of very great organizational assistance, both to PD marches, such as the Long March in January, and to the Civil Rights and PD meetings in towns, where they have often provided the stewards and so on. As far as the local Civil Rights associations are concerned, they have brought us right up against the Catholic bourgeoisie. Initially, when the CR committees were formed they tended to be committees of the local bourgeoisie of each area, sometimes with a token gesture in the direction of workers... All of them have emphasized the ending of the religious discrimination that has a painful effect on the prospects of the Catholic middle class...
Barnett puts the plain picture of what they have been doing. He echoes, deliberately or otherwise, one of the key points made by Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, the need to fight to make socialism more than mere trade-union-level assistance to the working class. Barnett indicates that PD has fallen into the same role vis-a-vis Catholic civil rights as the Russian “Economists” did vis a vis trade unionism.
“The implication is that you are shoring up the Civil Rights movement, firstly by posing militant demands which mobilise the Catholic workers and small farmers, giving the movement its numbers, and secondly by keeping this militancy within the arc of the Civil Rights movement. At the same time, it appears that you have been unable to transform it. So although at first sight you give it direction and punch, it seems that you are in fact performing a servicing function for the CRM rather than vice versa?”
Toman agrees: Yes, this is broadly true. The others make no recorded comment.
Barnett now raises the question of Republicanism. In the years that follow, Republicanism will be the ultimate “militant civil rights” organisation, focusing on the civil right of civil rights in the situation of the Six Counties Catholics: self-determination.
Barnett: In striking contrast to England there is a living revolutionary tradition in Ireland. What forms does it take and how does it assist you?
McCann: It’s Republicanism, and the idea of the revolution is implanted in the minds of the Irish people surrounded by the glory of 1916 and its revolutionary martyrs. The idea of revolution is not at all alien to the Irish working class, as it is to the English, and when one calls for revolution, no matter what one actually demands, there is always a link to Connolly and to 1916 and the armed uprising. What we have to do is to complete the national revolution by making the theoretical and practical link between what we are doing now, and what was fought for in 1916.
Farrell: What we are trying to do is to link this very powerful tradition to the concept of international proletarian revolution.
Republicanism will well up as if rising out of the ground like the warriors in the legend where the dragon’s teeth were sown. The idea of “completing the national revolution” will be central to its expropriation of the politics of militant civil rights.
They now discuss the question of the viability of the Six Counties state, and the possibility of it breaking up into Protestant and Catholic enclaves, or some of the Catholic areas seceding from the Six Counties. This idea would be central to the heated debates at the September 1969 IS conference, after the British army had taken control of the streets in Northern Ireland.
Farrell’s delusions about PD’s “base” (the Catholic working class) and his ruminations about “Catholic power” in parts of Northern Ireland, under the wing of the Unionist state, are interesting parts of this exchange.
The question of a revolutionary programme is a very complex one here in Northern Ireland. We cannot call for all power to the Soviets because our present basis is not the working class as a whole, or the working class and small farmers as a whole, it is only one section of the working class. This leaves us with the question of whether we concentrate initially on putting forward the largely reformist demands which could unite Catholics and Protestant working class, or whether we concentrate on posing the question of dual power in areas where the Catholic population is concentrated and militant by getting the local Catholic population to take over and run its own affairs, a sort of ‘Catholic power’.
This would be a very serious decision, but it is just possible that it might be necessary for us to establish such dual power: on the one hand Catholic-based power, of a socialist form, and on the other, Unionist state power. This would demand a socialist movement among the Catholics to create socialist councils such that Protestant workers can see that they fulfill class demands rather than creed demands, and want to create councils for themselves or merge with the Catholics in them.
This stuff is a mix of New Left/ Mandelite “theorising” around unrefracted straight-line extrapolations to create such notions as colleges and universities in Western Europe becoming “red bases”. Farrell here suggests some Maoist influences, too.
There is a curious and unexpected element in the book Twenty Years On, which Farrell edited in 1989. In his list of events which shaped the left of which he was part in 1968-9, he includes the Maoist Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966. That was a savage, destructive and reactionary rampage through Chinese society by a youth movement controlled by the Chinese army and used as a bludgeon by the Mao/ Lin Biao section of a divided bureaucracy.
It influenced the many autonomous Maoist groups in the US and Europe, turning most of them into ultra-left lunatics — or just lunatics. The IWG had published a very hostile account of the Cultural Revolution at the start of 1967. Farrell did not demur.
Barnett asked whether Farrell’s scheme would “raise the question of secession”.
Farrell: Well, there’s no question whatsoever of that, because the areas where the Catholic section of the population is militant are not the two areas which are supposed to have Catholic majorities-Tyrone and Fermanagh. The most militant area is Derry, after that perhaps Newry which is in South Armagh, after that perhaps apart of county Tyrone. Anyway you couldn’t take out whole areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone because they contain vast tracts of country which are inhabited by people of very extreme Protestant views.
Secession is as out of the question as is assistance from the 26 counties, where the bourgeois government, far from assisting any working-class movement (as I’m afraid some people in the Bogside imagine) will immediately fall with the six-country bourgeois government...
If you went ahead and tried to establish dual power in Catholic sectors you would have to do this in a number of dearly delineated and separate areas — Derry, Newry, Coal island and Gannon, perhaps.
Farrell’s objection here to Barnett drawing out the “secession” logic of what Farrell is saying is inadequate, in a situation of looming civil war; and that was the situation. In conditions of a breakdown of the state, the Catholic majority areas would quickly enough turn “militant”. They would have to, in self-defence. So would Protestant areas. The terrible logic of communal war would take hold.
McCann is less willing than Farrell to face the reality that their movement is and will remain Catholic-nationalist. He still thinks that a united working-class socialist movement is possible, as a development of the existing “civil rights” agitation.
He finds a “terrible confusion in what has just been said over the business of Catholic areas electing local committees.
We must always remember that there are already Catholic areas with ‘Catholic power’. Newry has an overwhelmingly Catholic majority, too great to be gerrymandered. It has Catholic power. Further, there is nothing more calculated to prove to the Protestant working class that the Civil Rights people all wear papal flags under their jerseys, than the establishment of unofficial pope-head councils in areas like Derry and Dungannon. It would remove the possibility of winning any Protestants over to our cause...”
Farrell: What I suggested as a possibility was something quite different, the election of popular councils based on universal franchise defying the bourgeois state and not recognizing Stormont, which of course Newry Urban council does. This would be something totally anti-bourgeois.. I’m saying that we have to think about this as a possible answer.
Farrell, of course, is trying to generalise from the experience of Derry, which, as they speak, is going through a short-term secession from Northern Ireland, and not for the first time.
McCann: You cannot have a Catholic popular council elected and then reveal the socialist nature of it. If you want to elect a socialist council you must campaign on radical socialist issues. It is impossible, for example, to elect a ‘Catholic power’ body which can do anything about housing…
[O’Neill] is going to fail because the North is tied, just as the South is in different ways, to Britain, and therefore to the failure of the Wilson government to solve the crisis of capitalism in Britain…
Unless we understand this and start to link it up to the cuts in the social services, the laws against the Trade Unions and so on, we are never going to be able to build any organization capable of overthrowing Tory ism in this country. If we talk about local issues like Catholic councils without campaigning on the broad issues, we will never get anywhere.
What is wrong with these general truths is that the people in the discussion, and the Catholics of Northern Ireland, are already deep into a situation that precludes using their slogans and projects to unite a Catholic/Protestant working class movement.
Farrell retreats from the crude but accurate “Catholic power” description, but sticks to his point.
I used the words ‘Catholic power’ humorously. What I meant was that in areas of heightened struggle such as Derry, or areas of Derry, it would be possible to elect a popular council.
Now a popular council would, in the nature of things in Northern Ireland, be a Catholic council in that it would be mainly elected by Catholic workers. But it would not be elected as a Catholic council, and the purpose of electing it would not be to remedy the lack of representation of Catholics. It would be elected as a people’s council in an area where people are singularly militant....
McCann: Dual power in this situation can only be Catholic power versus what Mike calls Unionist state power, which would in effect be Protestant power... What we have got to do now is to realize what a mess we have made of the whole thing over the past few months... We have failed to give a socialist perspective because we have failed to create any socialist organization. What we must do now, even in the volatile state of politics we are in tonight in Northern Ireland, is to set up with the greatest urgency a serious organization. Even if it is only something into which we can recruit people to form lines of communication. We cannot form a Bolshevik party overnight...
Farrell, who will evolve (to put it very mildly) into a satellite of the Provisional IRA, is still committed to a “sectarian socialist” approach to Partition, the approach IS took in December-January. Nothing can be done about Partition short of socialism.
Farrell: The border must go, but it must go in the direction of a socialist republic and not just into a republic which might at some future date become socialist.
Firstly the border must go because it is a relic of imperialism, and in order to root out imperialism we have to root out the neoimperialist set-up in the South and the neo-colonial one in the North.
Secondly, Northern Ireland is completely unviable economically and only exists as a capitalist entity at the moment because of massive subventions from Britain. Similarly the South on its own is an area of small farms with very little industry. It too is completely unviable on its own and as a result is also dependent on Britain.
The unification of Ireland into a socialist republic is not only necessary for the creation of a viable economy, it must also be an immediate demand, because only the concept of a socialist republic can ever reconcile Protestant workers, who rightly have a very deep-seated fear of a Roman Catholic republic, to the ending of the border.
In response to Barnett’s question about PD’s calculations when it participated in the Stormont elections, Farrell offers ultra-left, quasi-anarchist, and quasi-Irish-republican answers.
We participated in the election to smash this consensus [which O’Neill sought], and in order to destroy (particularly among the Catholics who were very vulnerable to this) the notion that O’Neill’s reforms would meet our demands. Our participation in the election was very successful from that point of view.
Barnett asks: What is your attitude to the demands that some English comrades [i.e. IS] have put forward for an end to British Aid to Ulster?
McCann: They are very bad. They imply that the Protestants are white sahibs and that this is a colonial state. Ulster is not just a colonial state; it is in many respects, though not in all respects, an ordinary bourgeois state. The subsidies do not support a privileged layer of the population,.
The Catholic working class have a lot of children and receive a lot of state benefits... You can’t demand [withdrawal of aid] in Britain and not demand [it] here, and if you go to the most militant section of the working class and demand that family allowances be stopped you are not going to get very far.
The whole national question comes in here but the simple fact of it is that you can’t go down to Bogside and advocate that British subsidies are withdrawn...
Obviously, no-one here imagines that our problems could be solved by intervention from Westminster. But an awful lot of our supporters do see such intervention as a means of solving the problems over which we have been agitating.
It is necessary to go to Westminster to demand the solution to these problems to show that Westminster is a farce, and that we will have to do it ourselves.
Finally, Farrell on the political party they need:
This very discussion has illustrated the need too for a radical socialist Party, but equally it has shown that we cannot form any high level organization, as we do not yet have the theoretical basis for any clearly determined policies, in fact we have not even discussed some elementary problems. What we need to form at the moment is some sort of alliance to develop a theoretical analysis of our struggle in the North, as well as to carry out systematic agitational work.
Next article in this series: Part 6: SWP (IS) and Northern Ireland in 1968-9: Advocating civil war — until it starts!