The far left in Northern Ireland

Submitted by Matthew on 2 December, 2015 - 11:31 Author: Marc Mulholland

Marc Mulholland is a historian working at Oxford University, and the author of books including “Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction”. He spoke at the Workers’ Liberty 2015 summer school, Ideas For Freedom, on the history of the far left in Northern Ireland.


Trotskyism in the early 1960s in Northern Ireland is interesting and unusual, in that it was most prominent amongst the Protestant working-class.

The Socialist Labour League, which became the WRP, got together a group of people around Jackie Vance, who came from working-class East Belfast. They had a group in the Draughtsman and Allied Technicians Association, a shipyard union. They had an influence in branches of that union in Protestant East Belfast, and an influence in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. They were able to take over the Young Socialist organisation in the 1960s, at a time when the Northern Ireland Labour Party was growing quite considerably. It was was picking up a decent amount of Protestant working-class votes, and a whole bunch of Catholic working-class votes. It didn’t lead to a massive breakthrough in terms of seats, but in terms of votes they were beginning to make the ruling Unionist party very worried in Belfast.

The Socialist Labour League didn’t talk about the national question or partition. It campaigned primarily on the issue of youth unemployment. They condemned the Northern Ireland Labour Party for its lack of militancy and its inability to enthuse young people.

The Labour Party would sound quite socialist now, compared to social democracy in the 21st century, but nevertheless at the time it seemed pretty tepid. From about 1964-65, the advance of the Northern Ireland Labour Party began to slow, partly because of the new technocratic, liberal Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, who stole some of the modernising clothes of the Labour Party. By 1965 the Socialist Labour League had left the Northern Ireland Labour Party, just as the Socialist Labour League in Britain was leaving the British Labour Party.

So the SLL and this very interesting group of working-class people around Jackie Vance didn’t really have much influence in the Civil Rights movement. More significant were the students. The big names were Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann, who went to Queen’s Belfast. Both were very talented people — Michael Farrell competed in an all-Ireland university debating competition, narrowly losing to Anthony Clare. Next year he was succeeded by Eamonn McCann.

McCann was a notoriously fiery chap. He was expelled from Queen’s after one night at the Literific Society when he got drunk, smashed the windows, and ran off with two bottles of champagne. He was expelled from the university and went off to London, where he came across the Irish Workers’ Group, an expatriate group of Trotskyist and Trotskyist-inclined people organising in London and trying to organise in Ireland too. They introduced McCann to Marxism.

If McCann was a live wire, Farrell was the organiser and strategist with ice water in his veins. People who knew him at the time said he was incredibly brave in any confrontation or run-in with the police.

Farrell was the intellectual leader of the far left in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. He was in the Northern Ireland Labour Party but interested in the idea of trying to expand to a wider constituency. He had concluded by the mid 60s that as many Protestant workers were voting for the Labour Party as were going to any time soon, and the NILP needed to do was to expand its appeal to the Catholic working-class. He argued for a broadening out of anti-Unionist opposition to include Republicans and primarily to the Nationalist party, often dismissed on the left as “Green Tories”.

When McCann got back to Derry he spoke in similar terms. He said there were no enemies on the left, only debates. The idea was to build a broad, anti-Unionist alliance. People were influenced by the mood of 1968. There was an anti-Vietnam-war movement in Northern Ireland. The press was increasingly talking about discrimination against Catholics. Parliamentary methods seemed to be getting people nowhere.

Austin Currie, a young representative of the Nationalist party at Stormont, had organised a sit-in at a house to protest against sectarian allocation of public housing. When he got to Stormont to talk about this, all the Unionist MPs laughed, talked amongst themselves and ignored him. Currie threw his papers at the front bench of the government, saying there was no point coming to Stormont, that nothing could get done there.

In 1968 the situation was ripe for politics to go on the streets. The first demonstration was organised by Eamonn McCann and his comrades in Derry. McCann wanted a demonstration to provoke the police into an overreaction, which would get on TV. This worked rather better than he had expected, and the police went nuts on 5 October, battering people off the street. That kicked off what the Belfast Telegraph called a “50 day revolution”, with daily demonstrations protesting against discrimination across Northern Ireland.

Many demonstrators in Northern Ireland identified very strongly with Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches in the US. They adopted the American strategy — exposing the racist nature of the state by demonstrating until they hit you over the head with a baton. The Northern Irish police were very willing to do that. With the civil rights movement, People’s Democracy was set up.

This was essentially Michael Farrell and his comrades bringing together a radical wing of the civil rights movement. One of the committee was Bernadette Devlin. When she was elected to Westminster in April 1969, she is the youngest person ever to have been elected to Parliament. At the time of Bloody Sunday, she went across to the government bench and smacked Maudling (then the Tory Home Secretary) in the face. When challenged on her actions she said they represented the voice of the proletariat.

Some historians like Simon Prince say the Troubles were the fault of the far left, because they used the tactics of provocation. Instead of exposing the capitalist nature of the state and bringing workers together, they worked upon the inherent divisions of Catholic and Protestant and plunged Northern Ireland into the disaster of sectarian armed struggle. They detonated a situation they didn’t properly understand.

I think there’s a little bit of truth to that, but it’s mostly wrong. It focuses a lot on the march from Belfast to Derry, which is ambushed by loyalists and off-duty policemen at Burntollet, a PD march which was organised to provoke and expose the nature of the state, and is often looked at as the point of no return. But there weren’t really many more marches after that one. They effectively stopped.

What really drove Northern Ireland into crisis was a split within the ruling elite. The Unionist government called an election. Terence O’Neill [the Northern Ireland prime minister] was trying to stamp down the hardliners in his own party. What it actually did was give the hardliners an opportunity to show their true strength.

As Lenin put it, the governed didn’t want to go on being governed in the old way, and those who governed couldn’t go on governing in the old way. The far left had a role in the politics of provocation, but more importantly there was a rotten state in Northern Ireland, and a split in the ruling elite.

By the early 1970s the far left increasingly became marginalised. Michael Farrell had more or less given up on the Protestant working-class. In 1972, in his now very shrunken People’s Democracy organisation, he was saying that, this side of the unification of Ireland, the Protestant working-class was only really a resource for fascism.

McCann didn’t go as far, but he certainly had no optimism about workers’ unity. There were other groups on the far left, like the Militant Tendency which prioritised working-class unity in a rather economistic fashion.

We often think of the IRA as being apolitical and reactionary in the early 1970s. It’s not quite right. We tend to think that because the history of the early Provos was written by Official IRA people who wanted to condemn them as right-wing. It’s also been written by people like Gerry Adams who want to claim they invented the notion of politics.

But if you look at Republican News or An Phoblacht in the early 70s, there’s plenty of politics there. Bob Purdie, a Scottish guy who was the Irish expert for the International Marxist Group, was an intellectual defender of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s. There were more than a few articles by him in Republican News ruling out any argument that you can expect anything of the Protestant working-class.

Michael Farrell and his group got a lot of respect from Provisional Republicans. PD, though quite small, acted as a kind of intellectual ginger group for the Republicans. But it wasn’t the only intellectual ginger group.

There was also Desmond Fennell, who’s an odd intellectual. Parts of his thought are fascistic, parts are Catholic social, parts are socialist, he was all over the shop. But he was also a fellow-traveller of the Republican movement. If PD influenced them in the North, Fennell influenced them in the South.

He thought that there might be two nations in Ireland, of which the Protestants in the North might be one. So it might be a good idea to think of a federal Ireland which allowed for self-determination for the Ulster Protestants. That idea had influence on the Provo leadership, particularly in Dublin, where they had been arguing for a federal Ireland based on the four historic provinces.

In the North, people like Farrell were arguing that the Protestant working-class could only be a resource for fascism, and that any idea of Protestant self-determination opened the road to fascism.

There was a debate around this, and a debate which is won by the Farrell side. Republican News openly attacked Desmond Fennell and called him a traitor and a bastard who should be thrown out (a very bitter thing to do, at a time when “traitors” got shot). People’s Democracy played a very significant role in Republican thinking in the 1970s, not necessarily in a very optimistic way.

By 1975-76, Michael Farrell had moved away from the catastrophist position that Northern Ireland was on the brink of fascism and that you could expect nothing of the Protestant working-class. He started arguing instead for a mass movement that brought politics in and around the armed struggle.

That opened the door for a strategy adopted by the Provisional leadership of hunger strikes and the rise of a mass Sinn Fein. If you look at Sinn Fein now, it’s a party that has obvious echoes of 1968 and the New Left. I think that is down to the influence of people Michael Farrell and the New Left, despite them never actually being members of Sinn Fein.