The debacle of demagogy, section 2

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 4:42 Author: Sean Matgamna

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

The wreckage of the previous policy and analysis — in so far as there ever was anything remotely resembling an independent IS analysis — cluttered the special "Irish issue" of Socialist Worker published on 21 August. It was flimsy, even as a hastily put together effort.

  • Section 1 of this article
  • Section 3 of this article

    It had four main articles – an account of capitalist exploitation in Northern Ireland, by Michael Kidron; a strangely gamey look at Irish-British history by Duncan Hallas, riddled with factual errors; the text of a leaflet put out by the left in Derry; and a front-page editorial.

    The criticism of IS here is not intended to mean that at the time I saw clearly and rejected all of what I am criticising. But I rejected and criticised a lot of it, for instance the idea that became IS’s magic mantra in this period, that if workers in the south would seize British-owned property that would transform everything for the better. I will deal later in the series with the Trotskyist Tendency’s politics, including what we shared with the IS leadership, what we rejected, and what we counter-posed to their politics.

    The (unsigned) editorial was — unmistakably — written or "creatively edited" by John Palmer. It appeared under headlines backing the demands of Catholic Derry and Belfast:

    The Barricades Must Stay Until:

    o B-Specials Disbanded

    o RUC Disarmed

    o Special Powers Act Abolished

    o Political Prisoners Released

    By the time that the issue of SW dated 21 August went to press, the way things were going and what the British Government intended was pretty clear. The B-Specials were being disarmed and there was talk that they would be "phased out".

    What SW headlined was what the British Government was shaping up to do, and anyone with any political sense would know that. SW’s "militant" demands were a list of things that were already being conceded. The "difficult" stuff like abolishing Stormont was omitted from the headlines, though SW was implicitly calling for that by way of denouncing London for not getting rid of Stormont.

    The editorial’s opening lines were: "Britain’s police state in Northern Ireland erupted last week. The people of Bogside, discriminated against, confined to appalling housing, often without hope of ever getting a job, stood up for themselves". But the people of the Shankhill also had bad housing: very few Shankhill houses had baths, and most had outdoor lavatories. This was pointedly, a Catholic-sectarian way for a socialist paper to present things.

    "Immediately there was an attempt to beat the whole Catholic population back on to their knees".

    The RUC, "controlled by members of the sectarian Orange Order… moved in to smash all resistance… In Belfast they used… automatic rifles and sub-machine guns." Thus SW said from the start that "the people" were the Catholics, and the Protestants were invisible except as "thugs". Yet:

    "What took place was not a riot over religion. The discrimination and denial of civil rights in Northern Ireland does not flow from religious beliefs. It is the result of a deliberate and sustained effort to develop and deepen religious hatreds by the Ulster rulers of Stormont."

    This is not even formally logical. The editorial presented a conspiracy view of a deep-seated historical phenomenon.

    "By making the condition of the Protestant population seem marginally superior to that of the Catholics, by arming them in the B-Specials and by permitting them to engage in periodic pogroms..." — though there were disturbances in 1942, the last major sectarian fighting had been back in 1935 — "the Protestants have been prevented from seeing their real interests in opposition to the Unionist ruling class".

    That was economistic blindness to the political questions that immediately concerned everyone, on both sides. In fact there was a comparatively powerful trade union movement in Northern Ireland. The author meant not that Protestant workers had ceased to see economic conflict between themselves and Unionist bosses, but that they had rejected Irish unity in a Catholic-majority state.

    Then the editorial offered sleight of mind: "The most oppressed section of the working class in Northern Ireland has begun to fight back in the last ten months".

    That was to substitute sociology for politics, subsuming everything else. It was true, but it was also a lie. It was not as workers that the oppressed Catholics had fought back, but as Catholics, part of the Irish "Catholic" nation — implicitly for the basic civil right they lacked, national self-determination.

    The author simply defined away the communal civil war that had erupted. IS was still pretending, misleading, still pushing the liberal/nationalist picture of "the people" against "the State".

    "For us the immediate priority must be to give as much support as possible to this beleaguered minority. We can hope that Protestant workers will see their true interests and fight alongside them" — for what, politically? — "and socialists must ceaselessly press for Protestant-Catholic workers’ unity". How? With what goals? By supporting Catholic-nationalist or Catholic-sectarian goals?

    And the troops? "Certainly the mass of Catholics, after three days of bitter fighting were relieved to see the RUC and the Specials withdrawn and to this extent were glad to see the British troops. But it should not be thought that the presence of British troops can begin to solve their problems".

    Under the cross-head "Not Angels", the editorial began to meld its Catholic-nationalist demagogy with an illusion-ridden de facto endorsement of the troops:

    "Because the troops do not have the ingrained hatreds of the RUC and Specials, they will not behave with the same viciousness — although the former terrorisers of Aden and Cyprus are not the angels the press presents them to be. They are in Northern Ireland to preserve ‘law and order’; which means preserving the existing set-up. The Catholics will still be confined to their ghettoes. They will still have the worst houses and the highest unemployment rate. And when the troops leave, the RUC, the Specials (in or out of uniform) and the armed Orange thugs will still remain." So the big problem with the troops was that they would only be there for a short while?

    What was a B-Special out of uniform? An Orangeman, a member of the Protestant community! What could be done about such people "remaining"? What should we want done? Their subordination to the Catholic community? To Dublin?

    The editorial continued:

    "The role of the British army is not to bring any real solution to the problems of the people of Northern Ireland" — i.e. not to bring socialism? — "but to freeze a situation that looked like getting out of hand and damaging the interests of the ruling class in Ireland.

    "Britain invests more in the South than in the North and is worried by the effects of an undisguised pogrom in the Six Counties on the rest of the island. They preferred to send in British troops rather than risk intervention by the population and even sections of the the army of the South".

    If not for British investments in the South, the British government would have ignored the breakdown into civil war of a province of the UK? Agitation rots your brain! In fact the author was "explaining" why IS’s oft-repeated assertion that the British army would aid the RUC and the B-Specials has proved false.

    "The Stormont regime… was set up with the support of the British ruling class. Its borders, artificially devised to ensure a Protestant majority, were fixed by Britain. The arms it uses to keep the people down come from Britain… It has in the past served British imperialism… by safeguarding British capitalist interests in the North, and making impossible any real independence of the regime in the South".

    "Real" independence? The only sense this could make is that the editorial meant "economic independence", and endorsed the claim of the woolier Irish nationalists that this would be possible if only the island were reunited.

    "The British ruling class feels that it can no longer afford to keep control over its enclave in Ireland in the old way — through a sectarian-based openly repressive regime. The British armed presence may prevent the worst excesses of the Specials in the short term [why only the short-term?]. In the long term the troops are there to protect the regime". [The old Orange regime? But not in the short term too? The author is trying to square what IS used to say with what has happened.]

    "In Bogside the population are making it clear that they will not dismantle their barricades until the RUC is disarmed, the B Specials disbanded, the prisoners released and the Stormont regime ended. They are absolutely correct. The only force that will ensure the end of the repressive regime and its arbitrary terror is the continued mobilisation of the oppressed population".

    Indefinite mobilisation? For what goals? The end of Stormont was the only one that was not about to be won.

    "Every help must be given to them in their efforts. But this needs to be real help, not the sort of meaningless gestures made by the Southern Government".

    Here SW swung over from "criticisms" of the British troops as not likely to stay long enough, or not bringing socialism, i.e. only providing a "breathing space", to agitation suggesting a view of how Dublin might give "real help". What real help would IS advocate from the South? Invasion? Though it did not call for the withdrawal of British troops, IS was still preaching war. Why then was the Northern Ireland Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer not right in calling for Southern troops rather than British troops?

    What "long term" solution — i.e. solution of any sort — could the British government conceivably provide, and be rationally denounced for not providing? In this part of the article, the counterposing of revolution to reform was intended to exclude the existing governments. Everything must be "from below", the politics of the street. SW would demand: open the arsenals!

    Translated, that approach was either an assertion that there would soon be a unification of Catholic and Protestant workers on both sides — or a call for letting the sectarian forces fight it out. And at the very beginning of the article the author had already effectively dismissed the Protestant workers.

    "The Green Tories of the South showed that while Irishmen were being attacked by armed sectarian mobs, their chief concern was to keep the Southern arsenals locked, while making unreal speeches about a UN peace-keeping force".

    "Irishmen" were being attacked? And what were those who attacked them? What nationality were the Protestant sectarian mobs? What nationality were the "sectarian" Catholic youth who stoned the Orange march? It would be difficult to find a more concentrated expression of primeval Catholic-nationalism than this! The editorial wanted to expose the Southern government as not good "Irishmen".

    In fact "open the arsenals" was the cry of the comic-opera Stalinoid "Republicans", whose major contribution during the mid-August crisis was to stir things up and vindicate Northern Ireland prime minister James Chichester-Clark’s story that what was happening was a general Catholic-Nationalist insurrection, with the lie that the IRA had active service units fighting in the North.

    The cry "open the arsenals" was a cry that the southern Government should abdicate in favour of letting nondescript "republicans" loose on the Northern Protestants: that is – abdicate the responsibilities of government and let the island dissolve into civil war.

    Since no government would choose to do what "open the arsenals" implied then, the demand was an "impossibilist", for propaganda-purposes-only, Sinn Fein demand to show up the Dublin Government as "traitors".

    From what point of view, anyway, should socialists want such chaos? The consequences would have been Catholic-Protestant civil war all over the island. As it was, there was a small eruption of Catholic sectarian threats against Protestants in Donegal and a Protestant church was set on fire.

    In the name of honest dealing, I need to say here that if the Southern Government had on 12 or 13 August sent its army into Derry and the other Catholic-nationalist territories on the border, including the Catholic-majority towns, then I would not have been amongst those who condemned them. Socialists would, in my view, then of course have tried to protect Protestants, denounce the Irish hierarchy, condemn church-state relations in the South, etc.

    However, IS’s "politics from below" backing the Republicans’ call was irresponsible idiocy. And to combine that with sighs of relief and oblique support for the British Army in the North — and with denouncing us for "wanting a bloodbath"!

    One of the curious features of IS’s performance is that it did not call for volunteers from Britain to help the embattled Northern Catholics, as in all seriousness it should have done. The Trotskyist Tendency did, in a fashion. Immediately after IS Conference, the IS branch in Manchester where we were mainly concentrated sent Joe Wright and myself to Derry.

    The editorial continued: "The real answer to the hypocrisy of the Dublin Government was given in last week’s [Republican-inspired] demonstration of dockers and other workers in the city. They demanded that the government give the only meaningful form of aid at their disposal. They should open the arsenals of the 26 County Army for the oppressed people of the North and those Southern Volunteers who want to go to their aid".

    That was, hook, line, and sinker, to follow the Stalinist-led IRA. It was a demand for a mass Southern invasion of the North. The facts that the Republicans could not actually organise such an invasion; that for there to be a widespread urge in the Catholic South to "go North", civil war would have to be raging in the North; and that the British Army had that under control by the time the editorial was written, did not inhibit the writer.

    Indeed, the fact that IS would not be called to face the situation their slogans would in life have conjured up may have encouraged this exercise in pseudo-Republican pseudo-militancy.

    The combination of the kitsch Republican fantasy with the very loud clang of the cast-away slogan about troops — and it could not in the circumstances be other than very loud: having been making so much noise about troops out, IS could not just decide that emphasis on that slogan did not make sense in the circumstances — was very odd indeed.

    Just as odd was the combination of talk of a workers’ republic with the new line on the troops. As the Trotskyist Tendency — Rachel Lever, I think — put it, the new IS line amounted to: "On to the Irish workers’ republic, though cheering, encouraging lines of British soldiers!"

    The editorial continued by stating that the South "is a good friend of British capitalism and the status quo". Why, specifically, British capitalism? This was a nod to the republican mind-set which thinks of Irish Catholic leaders as "Irish traitors", rather than Irish capitalists.

    And the Irish Army mobilised on the border to the West and South of the Six Counties border? The army was mobilised on the border "it is claimed… to give medical aid to the victims of the Northern fighting. In fact they are there to intercept those moving North to aid the beleaguered community…"

    So readers of SW had somehow to work out that what the 26 Counties army was doing was something different in kind from the description of what the British soldiers were doing which SW would soon suggest to its readers — namely, to allow the Catholics to arm, after which the Catholics could tell the British troops "to go" [Stephen Marks, 11 September].

    Editorial: "The only hope for the people! In the North is a mobilisation of the Southern workers and small farmers... In the South British factories and landed estates should be seized and held by the people in ransom for the lives of the Northern Catholics".

    Ransom? The lives…? To compel the British to do what, exactly? As a general idea this was small in its possible application, even were it acted on in full; but it would almost certainly be petrol on the fire in the North, stirring up the Protestants, perhaps especially Protestant workers: the pogrom in the Belfast shipyards in 1920 was triggered by the death of a Northern police officer in the fighting then going on in the South.

    Such action in the South would be the work of republicans; it would be "working class action" only in the sociological sense, not in the socialist sense… Above all the slogan "seize the British factories in the South" was a piece of foolish panacea-mongering.

    Editorial: "Time is vital to bring aid to the Northern people. The intervention of the British troops only allows a temporary breathing space in which the defenders of the Catholic community can be strengthened". And then? We can go on to civil war, clawing in both the South and the North? It would result either in the conquest of the North by the South or, in the real world — including the British soldiers’ likely role in such a war — the redivision of Ireland, shifting the border north and east.

    Editorial: "In Derry in particular, the Bogside has a real chance of holding out". Until when? For what? Indefinitely? "The Derry people, who are overwhelmingly anti-Unionist, were never consulted about the border. They were forcibly co-opted into the Northern State and their city allowed to die. One day the people of Derry will take their city from the Chichester-Clarks and the slum landlords". Indeed? Therefore? Secession? Did IS at that point have some use for the secession idea? Stranger things were happening…

    "British workers have a grave responsibility in the present situation. They can take action in many ways: by raising money for the ICRSC to send medical aid and other equipment to Northern Ireland, but most of all by joining the Irish workers in taking strike action to demand that the Mafia thugs spawned by Britain in Ireland, the Specials and the RUC, are fully removed and the Irish people allowed to decide their own future."

    This was quite a long way from the IS line in January 1969. The role the troops were said to be playing in allowing the Catholics to arm and then take over from the British army was an addle-pated version of the Fianna-Fail-IRA line that Britain should be "persuaders" for Irish unity, an extra absurd version of it.

    The demagogy continued full blast. "The immediate reaction in Bogside to the Wilson-Chichester Clark talks was: ‘The Barricades Stay’. It is the right reaction to the pious platitudes in the Downing St Communique… [which] concedes nothing to the civil rights movement, which must now intensify its struggle."

    This was a fantastic judgment! Granted that it is not the job of SW to concede any confidence, etc, in Britain, it is nonetheless the irreplacable job of a socialist paper for thinking people to have some grasp of what is and is likely to go on – to ground its agitation in the real world. SW’s assertion was grounded on an inability to take in that some things had changed.

    The fact that British troops were now in full control of both the RUC and B-Specials showed what?

    "The degree of detestation which Catholics have for for the ‘Guardians of Law and Order’."

    But what did this control add up to? The B-Specials were to be "phased out" of action only while the troops remained. And of course the troops had come on a short visa only: when the Catholics are armed they will tell them to go, and they will politely oblige. Then the B-Specials will be "phased in" again? This was such a fantastic idea that the author could not have actually believed it.

    "They have to be asked to surrender their guns — but there is no machinery to enforce this and the right wing of the Unionist Party has already made it clear that it is opposed to the surrender of weapons."

    Remember that for SW the British Army was only there to let the Catholics arm: it could not possibly be a "machinery" for forcing on the right wing Unionists anything they didn’t want...

    In fact the British army, and the RUC and sections of the B Specials would fight a very fierce gun battle with the Protestant intransigents on the Shankhill Road in early October.

    "The B-Specials have their guns in or out of uniform."

    In fact already the British Army had established central depots at which B-Specials had to hand in their guns. It was one of the first things the British Army commander did.

    "There is no guarantee that these fanatical thugs and bigots will cease their indiscriminate murder of Catholics and the burning and looting of their homes. And when the troops go the RUC and B-Specials will remain to reinforce the Orange police state."

    The troops, remember are only visiting… To reduce to the ridiculous caricature of gross exaggeration the case against the B-Specials was quite a feat in view of what has happened in Northern Ireland — but SW managed it!

    The truth seems to be that they just don’t know what to say, how to square what they were now saying, (and eloquently not saying) with what they had been saying yesterday.

    These passages were "yesterday’s" agitation, warmed up. And it hadn’t been very good or true to life even yesterday.

    They had nothing to say about the new situation — though what SW was not saying said everything.

    The agitation was not only yesterday’s agitation, but also safe agitation — agitation, so to speak, behind the lines of British troops. It was typical Labour fake-left stuff.

    What SW said to remove troops from the equation — whether about B-Specials being restored to old as soon as the troops finished their quick visit, or the Catholics arming behind the lines of the gallant British Army — was plain silly. SW would not now call for the troops’ withdrawal, and covered up by, for most purposes, refusing to recognise their existence. It was unutterably silly.

  • Section 1 of this article
  • Section 3 of this article