The 1968-9 discussion in IS (SWP) and its consequences

Submitted by AWL on 25 October, 2014 - 4:02

At the start of the Northern Ireland crisis in 1968, the dominant conception of the “Irish question” on the British left was essentially that of middle-class Irish nationalism.

The partition of Ireland was a brutal British imperialist imposition on Ireland; it was contrary to democracy and the rights of the Irish majority; and it created Protestant-Catholic division where otherwise there would be none or little.

By the late 1960s, Stalinists, some of them trained by the Connolly Association, and notably Dr Roy Johnstone, had effectively gained control of what there was of the IRA. The most momentous consequence of that fact would be the appearance of the Provisional IRA, as a split from the Stalinist-led movement, in December 1969.

The two discussions in Socialist Worker’s forerunner, Socialist Review, in 1957 and 1958, surveyed in this pamphlet, had been politically important. But they were only discussions, and in a very small circle of political people. The Socialist Review group had small public presence and no influence on events either in Ireland or in the British labour movement.

The discussion within IS (SWP) in 1969 would have consequences in the world outside IS – great consequences.


The organisation now had an important influence in Northern Ireland, where a group of IS’s co-thinkers played an important role in the agitation that would lead to its collapse into the first stage of civil war in August 1969 – and, then, for 38 years, to the British Army taking on the role of scaffolding to sustain the Northern Ireland sub-state, while Britain attempted to re-model it.

The group which published Socialist Worker, IS (today SWP), was then the liveliest element in Britain’s activist left, and the forerunners of Workers’ Liberty were then organised as the Trotskyist Tendency inside IS. The 1969 debate surveyed in this pamphlet was within IS.

The 1957-58 discussions were unknown to most of the participants in the disputes of 1969. But, through those participants who did know them, the 1957-8 exchanges plainly shaped the response of IS to the crisis that began when police, oblivious of the TV cameras “watching” them, batoned peaceful demonstrators in Derry on 5 October 1968.

The 1957-8 discussion had ended with the SR group dropping a recently-adopted position for Irish unity on the stated grounds, ludicrous and preposterous, that they had unexpectedly discovered that there were differences amongst Irish socialists themselves on this question.

The implicit conclusion of the group from its circuit through championing Irish unity to dropping it again was that socialism should be preached, not Irish nationalism. There was no necessary political disgrace in taking that position — not until where it involved them in evading basic issues pushed to the fore by the political reality as it developed in Ireland after October 1968.

After 1958, the SR group had simply ceased to concern itself with Ireland. Only two further pieces on Ireland had appeared in Socialist Review before it ceased publication in 1962. One was an article in 1962 by Alasdair McIntyre, at that point the organisation’s most prominent intellectual. He simply rehashed the Irish nationalist account of Irish history. The second was a strange article which reviewed a work by Father Dennis Fahey, a rabidly anti-Semitic Irish clerical-fascist equivalent of the well-known 1930s fascist priest in the USA, Father Coughlin, with whom he had connections, without telling the readers who and what Fahey was.

On 5 October 1968 the realities of Northern Ireland, of Protestant Six County state sectarianism and of the oppression of Catholics there, erupted on to the TV screens in Britain and across the world. To many observers it was like a scene from the black civil rights movements in the southern USA, which had roused the people of the world against the white racists for the last decade – except that the brutalisers and the brutalised were both white.

In response to the international outcry provoked by the scenes in Derry, the leaders of IS decided that they would campaign in the British labour movement on Northern Ireland. Given their conclusions in 1958, this presented them with awkward political dilemmas.

The Catholic mobilisation in Northern Ireland was organised around the demand for civil rights and Protestant-Catholic equality. Or as some put it,”British standards”. Many prominent civil rights people talked of socialism, and all of them were careful to avoid the question of Partition, “the “constitutional question”.

But the entire logic of Catholic mobilisation for civil rights pointed directly to the basic civil right which the Catholics in Northern Ireland lacked – self-determination. Everything flowed from the fact that they were an artificially created minority in an artificially demarcated sub-state

The hard-line Protestant-Orange leaders, such as William Craig, northern Ireland Minister for Home Affairs when the crisis broke, saw that immediately. They had seen it before 5 October. Denials by the main civil rights leaders carried no conviction with the Orange population.

At the beginning of its “turn” to Irish work, IS found itself in agreement with the civil rights leaders that the Irish national question should not be raised. So did their co-thinkers in Northern Ireland. So did the Stalinist leaders of the Republican movement.

Immediately after 5 October, Socialist Worker, which had recently become a weekly, responded with business-as-usual reports without any indication that there were special problems in Northern Ireland. There was only an oppressive state and its victims, “people”, “workers”.

As the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, and a Protestant backlash against it, escalated in 1968, the typical response of Socialist Worker was exemplified in an article by Paul Foot. On 26 October Foot reported under the headline: “Do-It-Yourself Politics Threatens Northern Ireland’s Police Rule”.

Foot gave Socialist Worker readers, who in the main would know next to nothing of the realities of Northern Ireland, details of the discrimination in housing, jobs, and votes against Catholics. Politically speaking, the important part of the article, defining IS’s approach, was this: “The exploited people of Northern Ireland, denied even the semblance of parliamentary democracy available to the rest of the UK, are beginning to ‘do it themselves’, to act to seize the basic rights and services denied them by the intolerant and reactionary government”. (In fact the voting system for the election of Northern Ireland’s two Westminster MPs was not interfered with. Election-rigging mainly concerned the local councils in Catholic-majority areas).

Direct action showed the way. The ruling Ulster Unionist Party set religious sectarianism to divide the workers.

Foot noted the upsurge of student militancy for civil rights. The “terror of the authorities at the prospect of workers and students acting for themselves can be measured by the readiness of William Craig [Stormont home secretary, who had banned the 5 October civil rights march, and then set the Protestant-dominated police, the RUC, on the marchers] known variously as the Papadopoulos [leader of the military regime in Greece after the 1967 coup] and Lardner-Burke [minister of justice in the white-minority UDI government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe] of Ulster...”


All of the IS of 1968 was there. There had been a strong strain of quasi-anarchism in IS’s youth segment. Direct action, “do-it-yourself” reforms, and “militancy” were the central values.

Alongside the quasi-anarchism in Foot’s article, and of IS’s typical approach then, was, right from the start, a lack of awareness of, or a refusal to notice, central features of the reality of Northern Ireland.

In Foot’s picture the fact that “the people” in revolt were only (a section of) the Catholic minority was resolutely pushed aside. He depicted a worker and student uprising against the Northern Ireland equivalent of a Greek military dictator or a white supremacist in Africa.

This was a view of Northern Ireland seen through spectacles that filtered out everything that was specific to Northern Ireland. For the next year, anyone relying only on Socialist Worker for information about Northern Ireland would not have been able to make sense of events there. The naional, communal, denominational, sectarian realities of the real Northern Ireland were not admitted into the pages of Socialist Worker until August 1969, when panic led the IS leaders to face realities (sort of), and to abandon their fantasies.

The first serious discussion of Ireland and the organisation’s turn to Irish work took place at the Executive Committee on 12 December 1968.

The muddle and confusion that characterised IS in 1968 was thick and dense at the very beginning of the discussion on Ireland. Gery Lawless was invited to attend. He was a fringe journalist and “professional Irishman” in the London and British left, a self-righteous Irish chauvinist who liked to denounce the British labour movement either for not being sufficiently active on the “Irish question”, or for “telling Irish people what to do”, that is, holding political opinions on Ireland independent of Irish politicos, especially himself.

Lawless — putting a line agreed on with IS’s “Irish experts”, Tony Cliff and John Palmer — gave the “keynote speech”. The minutes record what he said.

“Comrade L felt that the British working class had a racialist, chauvinist attitude towards the Irish question. The British left was not very much better informed. IS should educate its own members, as this attitude was also amongst them.

“If IS is serious, it should not simply organise demonstration on Ireland but try to educate the working class (and IS members) to campaign and organise on the Irish question (remembering there are over a million Irishmen in this country, mostly workers). There was perhaps scope for a campaign on Vietnam Solidarity Campaign lines which should be more fruitful because it could bring workers into contact with the revolutionary left. The campaign should take in questions coming from the south as well, although main emphasis on the North”.

The committee duly agreed:

“a) To educate the group (and the British left, especially revolutionary Marxists)

“b) Start an Irish campaign

“c) Assist the re-formation of an Irish group”.

The scene at this meeting, with the professional Irishman Gery Lawless telling off the committee and denouncing the British working class for being racists and chauvinists on Ireland, was very like a once well-known cartoon by Jules Feiffer from about the same time, in which a Black Panther is shown ina number of panels abusing a white upper-class cocktail-party audience until the last panel — in which, like a flagellating sex-worker confronting a satisfied customer, he has his hand out for payment.


The political conclusions and proposals for action from the EC meeting appeared in Socialist Worker on 4 January, on the eve of a meeting of the broader National Committee that would discuss and, notionally, decide.

The article, “Ulster: what the left must do”, was the work of Gery Lawless, under the pen name “Sean Reed”.

“The Northern worker will never be won to a programme which calls for the absorption of the Six Counties into the present Southern regime with its Rome rule in the schools which tends to confirm his ever-present fear that a break with Orange Toryism will open the floodgates and relegate him to the position of a second-class citizen.

“He will only be won for the establishment of a Republic when it is clear in his mind that what is envisaged is a Workers’ Republic in which he as a worker will control his own destiny without fear of Thames or Tiber.

“The complexity of the situation has in the past been used by many in the labour movement in Britain as an excuse for doing nothing, or else indulging in the old British habit of telling the Irish how to run their own affairs.

“This British... attitude to Ireland will come as no surprise to Irish revolutionary socialists, who have long recognised if not accepted the inability of the labour movement in Britain to show an understanding of the Irish problem.

“The result of this attitude in practice is that even the best-informed British left-wing organisations fail to take any part in the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland.

“What is to be done? First and foremost British socialists must refrain from penning long high-flown theoretical articles (which all end up telling Irish socialists what to do) and instead launch a campaign of solidarity with the Irish movement. In this campaign, the best thing British socialists can do is demand:

“(1) The withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland;

“(2) An end to the supply of British military equipment to the Northern Irish Tory Party and para-military Black Hundreds, the B-Specials;

“(3) Stop British subsidies to the Tory police state of Northern Ireland”.

As the Trotskyist Tendency (forerunner of Workers’ Liberty) wrote:

“The first two demands are anti-imperialist demands. But a strange anti-imperialism — which called for certain things and then, surprisingly, avoided the essential and logical conclusion: the call for the right of self-determination for Ireland as a unit.

“To raise the self-determination demand would have been to raise the question of the Border, because to have any meaning in the present state of Irish politics self-determination must mean self-determination for those explicitly denied it: the Catholics of Northern Ireland. It must mean to regard the existing Irish state structures as fluid”.

The third demand was one which nobody had heard of for ten years, and which nobody else in either Britain or Ireland at that time supported – withdraw British subsidies from Northern Ireland. The slogan had made a fleeting appearance in the 1957-8 discussion, presented there by Dominic Behan, who in turn had probably got it from a 1955 Connolly Association pamphlet.

And the article missed out on two key slogans, for which its authors were called to task by the National Committee. Self-determination for Ireland as a whole; an Irish Workers Republic. In fact the text of the Socialist Worker article implicitly ruled out self-determination: the worker “will only be won for the... Republic when it is clear... that [it] is a Workers’ Republic”.

Where the Stalinists presented a “stages theory”, first the Republic (united Ireland), then the workers’ republic, so did IS. IS’s version was: first win socialism, and then Irish unity (self-determination) could be the next stage.

Here the 1969 discussion continued from where IS left off in 1957-58. It was a mercy that the full absurd scenario of 1958, of effort to win two Irish workers’ republics, separately, and then proceed to a united workers’ republic, was not spelled out.

Despite the reference to socialism as a necessary first stage before Irish unity, the IS demands were not explicitly for socialism, or, in Irish parlance, for the Workers’ Republic. This was a very odd omission in the political basis for a campaign in the British labour movement where there were hundreds of thousands of Irish workers and workers of recent Irish descent.

The IS Executive had chosen as its model the Communist Party’s front organisation, the Connolly Association. The Connolly Association presented itself to Irish workers in Britain as a pseudo-nationalist organisation with a focus on the labour movement. The IS leaders wanted to present IS as a pseudo-liberal, militant civil rights front.

At the National Committee, two additional slogans were proposed: for self-determination for Ireland as a whole, and for an Irish Workers’ Republic.

The members of the Executive, with the exception of Constance Lever, opposed adding the demand for self-determination, though it was carried by a big majority. They opposed because, they said, it pre-empted a future decision by the Irish people. And they opposed the Workers’ Republic for pretty much the same reasons.

Exactly half those present voted to add the slogan for a Workers’ Republic to the list. The chairman, Jim Higgins, gave his second, casting, vote against the Workers’ Republic demand, and it fell.

IS was a democratic organisation in allowing such free discussion. It was not democratic in terms of real membership or National Committee control of what the organisation did or said. Self-determination appeared in lists of slogans, but was always interpreted by and in the spirit of those who had opposed it at the National Committee. They had a strongly manipulative notion of their relation with the membership of the group.

John Palmer chose to interpret the self-determination demand like this in the International Socialism journal, no. 36:

“[The demand] also has the advantage that it allows for a possible decision by the whole people of Ireland to merge the two statelets on the basis of some degree of autonomy for the Protestants...”

Interpreted thus, “self-determination” allowed the leadership to relegate the whole thing to a distant future and still treat the imperialist set-up, the Border, etc., as given, as unmitigable. Ultimately this was to be one of the factors leading to the acceptance of British troops after August.


After the January 1969 NC, IS entered a phase that would last until mid-August 1969, with some important zigzags.

In Northern Ireland the IS people, controlling a left-wing student group, People’s Democracy, formed the militant wing of the ongoing civil rights agitation. That is, in practice, the most reckless and irresponsible and damn-the-consequences segment.

People’s Democracy was at that stage a very loose, structureless organisation. When the Cameron Commission reported on the October events, it presented a damning picture of PD for, among other things, its lack of democratic structures.

In January 1969 PD organised a “Long March” from Belfast to Derry which was harassed by Orangemen with the collusion of the police. Serious inter-communal rioting broke out in Derry when the marchers arrived there.

In terms of publicity about the United Kingdom’s backyard sectarian state, it had an effect similar to 5 October. In terms of Northern Ireland politics, it helped polarise the communities further.

IS’s coverage of Northern Ireland publicised and lauded the “militants” and direct-actionists. In April 1969, a member of PD, Bernadette Devlin (afterwards known as McAliskey), was elected to the Westminster Parliament for the mid-Ulster constituency. She was called the “unity” candidate, but really, and although she proclaimed herself a socialist, that referred to Catholic unity within the constituency.

In London she worked with IS, holding meetings on building sites and in some works canteens. In May IS set up a front organisation, the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign. Mysteriously, given the decisions in January, the campaign’s platform included a call for a workers’ republic and did not include a call for withdrawing British subsidies.

IS never attempted to make an in-depth analysis of Northern Ireland or Ireland as a whole. Decades later, writing to Jim Higgins, who was working on a history of the organisation, John Palmer, one of the authors of the “centralised” chaos in the organisation’s Irish work in 1969, admitted that the organisation never had worked out a coherent line on Ireland. We told him and the others that often enough back in 1969!

IS’s line was shaped by organisational considerations and the desire to “second” People’s Democracy and keep in with its leaders. In fact, the ICRSC was in its politics not seriously different from the Communist Party front, the Connolly Association. The main difference was in that one organisation fronted for the Communist Party and the other for IS.

SPURIOUS “GOOD REASONS” FOR “TROOPS OUT”, and then collapse into effective support for troops

In May, there was a front-page of Socialist Worker with a raucous call for troops out. Why was IS for troops out? Because, said Socialist Worker, the only role the British Army could play in Northern Ireland was to back up the sectarian Six County state.

That was obviously absurd. One of the things that had destabilised Northern Ireland was the pressure from the Labour government elected in October 1964 to reform the Orange-sectarian characteristics of the sub-state. Some Labour politicians who had the ear of prime minister Harold Wilson or were even in the government had campaigned against the Northern Ireland regime, sometimes with the Connolly Association. One of them, Paul Rose, a future judge, had published a pamphlet about the Manchester Martyrs.

They wanted to turn Northern Ireland into an ordinary West European liberal state – to graft normal bourgeois democratic practices on to the sectarian structures on which the sub-state rested. This was like trying to graft the head of a human being on to the body of a dog; it could not work. Even today the northern Irish sub-state rests on an intricate bureaucratised system of sectarian balances; it is more or less at peace for now, but it is probably not stable in the longer term.

As an appreciation of modern Irish reality, IS’s explanation of why it was for troops out, and not for the demand of the Labour parliamentary left to dismantle Belfast home rule in the Six Counties and impose direct rule from London, was, to put it bluntly, deeply foolish.

It was an example of IS leaders using whatever “good reasons” or “good arguments” they could find for their immediate, politico-organisationally defined, objective, and never mind the underlying implications.

In August 1969 the British Army would go on to the streets of Northern Ireland (to the cheering of the Northern Ireland Catholics) to stop sectarian civil war, and the British government would push aside the Belfast government. It didn’t abolish it yet, but it appointed British civil servants to shadow their Northern Irish equivalents from 1969 until March 1972, when the Belfast government was abolished. Yes, indeed, the British army shored up the six county state – but only to begin to dismantle its regime.

The IS leaders’ foolish assertion that the only conceivable role the British Army could play in Northern Ireland was to back up the Unionist sectarian state prepared them, in their panic at the beginning of the breakdown of the Six County state in August 1969, and their disorientation about the role the Army was obviously playing then, to turn themselves inside out. In terms of political appreciation of reality they had been standing on their heads: now suddenly they flipped onto their feet. They effectively endorsed the British Army intervention, while covering themselves by warning that the troops were “not angels” and would do bad things in the long term.

There was continuity, however. They followed PD. The leader of PD, Michael Farrell, publicly called for the British Army to be sent in on the first day of the sectarian fighting in August 1969. Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin were slower about it, but they too called for the British Army to be deployed. They took public responsibility for the Army and talked up its benign role in northern Ireland.

So did IS in Socialist Worker.

Suddenly the people who had irrationally headlined “troops out” in May (when the troops were not intervening) dropped all their previous arguments when the troops did intervene.

The problem was not just the upturning by reality of the nonsense reason they had given for demanding troops out. It was also the logic of what PD had been doing “on the ground” in Northern Ireland.

The Orange state existed. It had the militant support of the big majority of its citizens. So had its Unionist government. Its supporters were the compact majority in most of the territory of the Six County state. In part the sub-state was destabilised in face of British pressure for reform and Catholic agitation within its borders because of the political ineptitude of its political leaders and the effective demagogy of their Unionist sectarian opponents, such as Ian Paisley, who led a revolt of working-class Protestant unionists against the Orange-Unionist political elite.

There was opposition to the “liberal” Unionists like Terence O’Neill (then Northern Ireland prime minister) within the Unionist party from men like William Craig.


The mainstream civil rights agitators backed the more liberal Unionists. PD proclaimed the liberal Unionists the main enemy.

Eamonn McCann compared the liberal Unionists to oppressors wearing slippers and the hardliners to oppressors wearing hobnail boots. This became a very common metaphor with people like Bernadette Devlin.

They drew the bizarre political conclusion that there was no substantial difference, since both were Unionists! All proportions guarded, it was a little like the attitude of the Stalinists to the Nazis and Social Democrats in Germany before Hitler came to power.

Ian Paisley publicly claimed that Bernadette Devlin had turned up at his doorstep to propose a united front with him and his working-class supporters against the liberal Unionist government leaders. She did not deny this bit of crass ultra-left absurdity. Nor did her PD, or IS, collaborators dissociate themselves from her action.

The IS leaders did nothing to re-educate the PD leaders.

It was not necessary to follow the mainstream Civil Rights leaders in giving political support and credence to the liberal Unionists, or to take responsibility for what they did and did not do. It was however necessary to recognise political and social reality – and to understand the balance of forces in Northern Ireland. If the “liberal unionist” were not to prevail then the extreme sectarians would. That would be a step towards civil war. (But then some of the PD people – Cyril Toman, for instance –had openly proclaimed the slogan “civil rights or civil war”.)

It was the provocative and too-often misjudged “militancy” of PD that distinguished them from the mainstream Civil Rights movement, not their operational politics.

PD’s course could logically lead to one of two conclusions. Either sectarian civil war, out of which, after invasion by the Southern army and/or Britain, would come repartition and the hiving-off of the Catholic majority areas along the border.

Or: intervention by the British state to smother civil war before it properly got going.

Everything before the August explosion suggested that the outcome of breakdown would be British intervention rather than 26-county state intervention and repartition. And so it was. The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, made a speech saying the 26 county government would not indefinitely “stand idly by” in face of what was happening in Northern Ireland. But he did.

There was widespread identification in Northern Ireland among Catholics with the US civil rights movement of black people (though in fact the levels of oppression were not really comparable). The PD leaders were also influenced by the experience of the American movement.

In the USA, however, the civil rights marches in white supremacist areas, the sit downs against segregation and the challenges to the dominant racists, made sense only on the assumption that there was a higher authority that could and would “intervene”. Michael Farrell’s very quick call on the British government – not the 26 county government, to which nationalist politicians such Eddie McAteer appealed for protection – to send troops in August may indicate that all along he saw Northern Ireland, too, in terms of prodding a higher authority (from London) to intervene.

In any case Farrell, McCann and Devlin were followed immediately by IS. Effectively they had moved onto the ground of the Labour parliamentary left which demanded London direct rule as the alternative to majority rule – that is Protestant rule – in the sectarian Unionist six county state.

The Trotskyist Tendency had criticised the “provocative” activities of PD and asked what the political perspective could be within the Six County state from such stoking-the-fire activities.

The entire logic of what PD had done and IS backed and lauded had to be, if not sectarian civil war, then British direct rule. That logic crashed into place in August 1969 and afterwards.

In face of the erupting Catholic-Protestant civil war, IS buckled politically. IS “woke up” in August 1969 and discovered that, after all, there were for the British state in Northern Ireland and, without saying so, for direct rule. The political collapse provoked a crisis in IS.

“Groups which begin a struggle without a definite program have been characterised as political bandits... The Lovestoneites”, wrote American Trotskyist James P Cannon of a socialist group in the 1930s with many of the same traits as IS/SWP, “were able and talented people, but they had no definite principles...

“Their politics was always determined for them by external pressure. The Lovestoneites never had any independent program of their own. They were never able to develop one”.

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