This series: The Northern Ireland crisis of 1968-9 and the left (Part 7, section 3)
Next article in this series: Part 8: IS/SWP conference, September 1969
- Part 1: Why Northern Ireland Broke Down
- Part 2: The Irish Workers' Group, I S and the "Trotskyist Tendency"
- Part 3: Why Northern Ireland Split on Communal, Not Class, Lines
- Part 4: When militant sloganeering meant promoting communal war
- Part 5: When socialists looked to "Catholic Power"
- Part 6: SWP (IS) and Northern Ireland in 1968-9: Advocating civil war — until it starts!
- Part 7: The end of the old order in Northern Ireland
- Part 8: IS/SWP conference, September 1969
- Part 9: The debacle of demagogy, August 1969
- Part 10: The SLL on Ireland; introduction The "hard Trotskyists" of 1969
- Part 11: AWL's record on Ireland — Part A
- Part 12: The trap of "painting by numbers"— AWL's record, part B
The crisis that erupted in Derry on 12 August, the breakdown of the Northern Ireland state system, would be followed after October — after the decision to abolish the B-Specials and a major gun battle by RUC and British soldiers against Protestant gunmen on the Shankhill — by a lull. Then it would erupt again, in old and familiar forms.
In fact it would not be resolved for decades. Soon it became clear that the whole Northern Ireland system had been sapped and undermined. From August 1969 the British Army acted as an emergency scaffolding to stop disintegration. The Belfast parliament would be abolished by Britain in March 1972.
What opened in mid-1969 was a major revolutionary crisis. Analysing the experience of revolutions, including Russia’s, Lenin had defined three conditions necessary for a revolution to take place. The old order is no longer able to go on in the old way; the ruled, or enough of them, are no longer prepared to go on in the old way; and an alternative to the old order is available.
The Northern Ireland Catholics were no longer willing to go on in the old way, and the old order could not go on in the old way because of the Catholic revolt and Britain’s commitment to reform. The great gap in the scenario was in relation to Lenin’s third condition: what could replace the old order?
The working class was radically divided and in both its sections, Protestant and Catholic, politically and intellectually hegemonised by “its own” bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and their national-communalist ideas.
The workers in the South were powerfully militant “on the job”, but in no political condition to reshape society. The working class had no independent political organisation to make proposals as to how the divided people of Ireland, or of Northern Ireland, could democratically rearrange their affairs. There was no possibility of a working-class political force to fill the gap.
In neither of the national or communal groups was there a revolutionary socialist force able to plausibly propose a democratic settlement of the “constitutional conflict” (whether Ireland should be independent or affiliated with Britain) and working-class unity on the issues that had led to breakdown and the beginning of communal-national civil war in Northern Ireland.
The left in Ireland, such as it was, used political categories — pro-imperialism, anti-imperialism, sectarianism, anti-sectarianism, British occupation, and so on — to obscure the fundamental issue, the nature of the Catholic-nationalist/ Protestant-Unionist divide.
The left was solidly on the Catholic side, the side of the Six Counties' oppressed of the previous 50 years and previous centuries. It was right and necessary to be on that side. But the left shared middle-class Catholic-nationalist ideas, changed only by re-expressing them in the left’s own political language, for instance, the “Trotskyist” notion that Ireland was experiencing, or could be made to experience, a “permanent revolution” in which the Catholic nationalist movement would grow over into socialism and working-class power.
From 1970 Northern Ireland would settle into a long low-level communal conflict, half-smothered by the British state, and entwined with a Catholic-nationalist Provisional IRA war against that British state. It was a hopeless and unwinnable war. The Provisional IRA had no policy for the big Protestant-British minority but to subjugate it. Since they could not themselves do that, and civil war could not but result in continued partition, perhaps with a smaller “Protestant state”, the Provisional IRA were reduced to trying to force Britain to “persuade” the Protestant community into a united Ireland.
Things have settled down — or seem to have — after the long travail, into the present system of intricately structured bureaucratically organised sectarian power-sharing — a system that, though it is “better” than the Provo war, cannot but work to perpetuate the communalism it enshrines in its workings, and therefore cannot but work to perpetuate the division in the Irish working class.
What happens on the level of big events such as those in Northern Ireland happens because, everything being as it is, it has to. In retrospect what happens assumes the character of inevitability. In fact, things that in retrospect were part of an inexorable movement of given facts may have been in flux before they settled into the congealed jumble of facts that make the event which in retrospect we see as inevitable.
Could things, in the flux of 1969, have gone differently? Were other things possible, worse or better? That is the issue that lay at the heart of the dispute that began at the September 1969 Conference of the International Socialists (forerunner of today’s SWP), and occupied the organisation for many months. We will explore that in the next article in this series.