The last days of the old order in Northern Ireland

Submitted by martin on 11 January, 2008 - 4:02 Author: Sean Matgamna
Riot police in Derry

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

Part seven of a series on the Northern Ireland crisis of 1969 — the start of nearly 40 years of “The Troubles” — and the responses of the left.

Section 2 of this article

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

    [This is an edited and augmented version of the text in Solidarity.]
    High above the Bogside in Derry, Frank Roche, a Trotskyist from the South, and I looked down one night in September 1969 on the Catholic ghetto that proclaimed itself, in big letters painted on the gable end of a house, to be “Free Derry”. We were standing on the perfectly preserved ramparts of the gigantic stone fort — the walls around the old city of Derry — built at the beginning of the 17th century to protect Scots and English Protestant settlers from the native “wild Irish”.

    Catholic Derry had recently thrown up its own bulwarks of defence — against the Northern Ireland “Protestant state”. After a battle that lasted from the afternoon of August 12th until the early evening of August 14th, the Bogsiders had defeated the Royal Ulster Constabulary and civilian Protestant youths who had combined with them to invade their area. The Bogside was barricaded off behind its own improvised “walls of Derry” in a self-policed area, run by the Derry Citizens' Defence Association. For two monts it would be a "no-go" area to the British army and the humbled representatives of the Six-County state. The recently-arrived soldiers patrolled on one side of the barricades, the defenders of “Free Derry” on the other.

    Frank Roche and I were among the sizeable number of “volunteers” who had gone there, belatedly as it turned out, to help the Catholics defend themselves against police, Protestant communalists and expected invasion by the British army.

    Roche would, the following year, lob a canister of CS tear gas from the visitor’s gallery on to the floor of the House of Commons, to give British MPs a taste of what their army was dishing out in the Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry. For that he would draw an 18-month jail sentence.

    As we looking down at the sprawling slum, Frank, who had been silently contemplating the scene for a while, said suddenly: “You know what it reminds me of? One of those scenes in Hollywood Westerns, with the tepees of the defeated Indians clustered down below, outside the cavalry fort!”

    That neatly summed up the history of the peoples of that area over the previous 400 years. It caught everything — the sense of defeat and of being conquered and dispossessed that was a living part still of the consciousness of the Catholics, and the sense of victory and of mastership, up on the ramparts, so to speak, that was still vehemently, if uneasily, alive for the Protestants. It was alive for both the celebrants in the marches and other rituals employed by the Unionist Orange Order to commemorate their ancient victory and descendants of the defeated Catholics, who watched, sometimes fearfully.

    Derry, where everything, including the topography of the town, was arranged as if to blazon forth the realities of Catholic-Protestant relations in Northern Ireland, was the engine of the Catholic revolt in 1968-9.

    Apart from Belfast, Derry is Northern Ireland’s only city. It has a Catholic majority and stands only two miles from the border with the independent Irish state. The Catholic two-thirds of the population was ruled over by a discriminatory Protestant-majority city corporation, whose control was based on open and blatant, and seemingly unassailable, electoral fraud.

    When most of Catholic Ireland had won its independence fifty years earlier, after centuries of conflict, the Catholic majority in Derry City and in a large swathe of territory wrapped around the kernel of Protestant-Unionist North East Ulster — about half the whole territory of the 6-County state — had been arbitrarily excluded from that Catholic-Nationalist victory and the "Catholic" state that arose from it. They were included against their will in the “Protestant state”. There they were treated as a menace to the state — which they were: what else could they be? — and, therefore, as second-class citizens They were discriminated against in jobs, housing, local government franchise, and in everything the Belfast government could controll.

    Most of the young people of Catholic Derry had no hope of a job unless they emigrated. They rioted and demonstrated and built barricades in the week that followed the police attack on the 5 October 1968 civil rights demonstration. From then on Catholic Derry went into a state of chronic revolt against the city’s rulers and the Six Counties sectarian establishment. In Derry in January 1969, and again in April, and in mid-July at the time of the big Orange demonstrating season, serious fighting broke out between the Bogside youth and the Royal Ulster Constabulary

    Yet the simmering revolt had a hopeless — even in some ways, among the unemployed youth, a lumpen, a blind lashing out in impotent rage — quality to it. It seethed and intermittently exploded, but its natural political objectives were blocked off.

    The possible working-class socialist objective of taking part in a root and branch attack on the capitalist system (an objective to which very few subscribed, except in the vaguest "Connolly had the right idea" sense) was blocked off by the fact that in Ireland, and in the Six Counties, intensely and actively, the working class was bitterly split between Catholic-nationalists and Protestant unionists.

    The nationalist objective of overthrowing Protestant ascendancy and achieving national self-determination by incorporation into the "Catholic" state, to which, in general, almost all Catholics subscribed, was blocked by the fact that in the Six Counties as a whole, the Derry Catholics were part of a minority — a bespoke minority, tailor-made by those who designed the Six Counties “Protestant state” — that could not, in any democratic vote confined to the 6 Counties, ever hope to win. From that reality would soon, at the beginning of 1971, erupt the Provisional IRA's war.

    Politically NI was sterile territory. Nothing had been done by political parties or groups to explore a possible democratic modus vivendi between Catholic Nationalists — with their ultimate aim of a united Ireland — and Protestant-Unionists, who were determined to to remain united with Britain, or at any rate, determined not to become a powerless Protestant minority in a Catholic-majority all-Ireland state. They confronted each other as irreconcilable enemies.

    In Catholic “Derry of the burning zeal” (as the poet Thomas Kinsella called it) there was by the Summer of 1969, a heroic spirit of defermined revolt. It was by no means only the youth. The Catholics of all ages were unwilling to go on as for the previous decades. Without the taint of hyperbole, one might even speak of “The Commune of Derry” that rose re[peatedly — three times in 1969 — behind improvised barricades– — but only of Catholic Derry. And they could, for the reasons stated above, make neither a nationalist or a socialist revolution. At the best, they could win only reforms within the 6 Counties

    They were encouraged in their revolt by the sympathy and outrage on their behalf in the media and in the British Labour government, which openly demanded reform. In August, they were spurred on by fear of more sectarian onslaughts by the RUC, the B-Specials, and the Paisleyites.

    Essentially, they were trying to break the framework of the 6 Counties entity and the limitations it imposed on their struggle. In January and April 1969, Catholic barricades had gone up against the Six Counties state. An editorial (by John Palmer) in Socialist Worker (on August 21, 1969, when Catholic Derry and parts of Belfast were barricaded off) accurately depicted what they were groping towards.

    “In Derry in particular the Bogside has a real chance of holding out. The Derry people, who are overwhelmingly anti-Unionist, were never consulted about the Border. They were forcibly co-opted into the Northern State…. One day the people of Derry will take their city from the Chichester-Clarks and the slum landlords.”

    The Catholics of Derry, who would not take down the barricades of August until October, were, evidently, groping towards breaking away from the "Protestant State".

    The 6/26 County partition of Ireland was a curse on the Protestants within it as well as to the Catholics.

    Many elements entered into the social and political discrimination of which the Catholics were the victims, very importantly a general scarcity of jobs and of material resources; ages of Catholic/ Protestant animosity; and the inbred belief among the Protestants that the Catholic Irish were an inferior people.

    The things that kept it alive, that united Protestant-Unionists to defend and sustain it, were not only political differences and the competition for scarce resources, but also, fear. The Protestant-Unionists were a minority on the island. It had taken an armed near-revolt, and the credible threat of a real revolt, on the eve of the First World War, to keep them from being delivered by Britain to their age-old enemies as a minority in a Home Rule Ireland.

    The way the 26 Counties had developed into the “Rome Rule” which Protestants had said Home Rule would inevitably be, suggested to them that their fears and their efforts to avoid being a Protestant-British minority in a Catholic-ruled Ireland had after all, not been needless fears.

    In 1969, they feared “betrayal” by London, and were on the look-out for it. They saw the pressure for reform from London as the thin end of the wedge whose thick end would be an attempt to force them into a united Ireland. They saw the Catholic mobilisations for civil rights as Republicanism writ small, but small only for the moment.

    A writer in the Dublin paper, The Irish Press, reporting on the events of Mid-August, 1969 in Derry, described how fear-ridden Orange reaction helped push Partition, despite the efforts made to exclude it from the CR Movement, to the political forefront within a few months of the launching of the Civil Rights movement:

    “It has proved impossible to exclude violence and the Partition issue from the civil rights campaign not because, as Major Chichester Clark alleges, Republicans and hooligans subverted the movement, but because the Paisleyite element, seeing the threat to Unionist dominance in the civil rights movement’s legitimate demands, did everything in their power to pervert the campaign into a naked confrontation of violence and hate. Unfortunately they succeeded”.)

    And they were not entirely wrong in their fears, though their own backlash speeded up and intensified what they feared. The basic “civil right” the Catholics lacked was national self-determination. And the Catholics were in the majority in large swathes of the state’s territory; for a large part of them, it was not a case of being a minority inescapably interlaced with a majority population. The Six Counties Catholics outside of Belfast were an artificially created minority, an artificially severed section of the majority population in the island.

    The logic of the demand for civil rights formulated by the civil rights movement — and not too many links along the chain of social-political development, either — was a demand for the abolition of the Six Counties state. There were people at the heart of the civil rights movement — the Republicans — whose ultimate goals were Irish unity, and who saw the civil rights movements and its mobilisations as a first stage in the overthrow of the Six Counties state. (Desmond Greaves, for example, the political guru of those who led the IRA up to the Provisional IRA split in December 1969. saw it that way. See the memoir of Greaves by one of them, Anthony Coughlan).

    The candid Catholic-nationalist answer to those fears was: why shouldn’t we? What right have you to expect anything else?

    It was a tragic communal-national-religious antagonism, build in to the Six Counties, and given a special intensity and intractability by the artificiality of the state. That Northern Ireland should begin to break apart on 12 August 1969 in Derry was in the very nature of the Six Counties. It was by August 19969 what we would now call a "failed state".

    What follows is a stark outline of the breakdown of the old order in Northern Ireland.

    Section 2 of this article
    Section 3 of this article