British Marxists opposed the sending of troops to the North of Ireland in 1969

This article was originally published in the Militant under the title "Northern Ireland - For A United Workers' Defence Force" just after the British troops were sent into the North of Ireland in 1969. While most of the left capitulated and supported the sending in of troops the Marxists explained clearly that, "The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the Civil Rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interest of British and Ulster Big Business."

Original tile: "Northern Ireland - For A United Workers' Defence Force"

  • Withdraw British troops
  • Disband B-specials and police thugs
  • For jobs, schools, homes, take over monopolies
  • Catholic and protestant workers fight for a united socialist Ireland

The electric events in Northern Ireland have shaken to their roots the Unionist Stormont Government and shocked out of its sedate calm the British ruling class. The bloody clashes in Derry, Belfast and other towns has meant that the Catholic population is no longer prepared to accept the writ of a Government which rules by police and Paisleyite terror. Forced to defend their area of the Bogside the Catholic workers have taken over the running, policing and organisation of the area through the establishment of defence committees. At the same time ‑ and it is this more than anything which will strike terror into the hearts of the capitalists ‑ an increasing section have begun to see their fight not in a religious form but as a class issue.

At bottom the uprising in Derry was against the system itself, the lengthening dole queues, the worst housing in Britain, and misery on a mass scale. This anger against the capitalist system erupted in the insurrection ‑ and that is what it undoubtedly was ‑ against the attempts of their traditional enemies, the police, to unleash another reign of terror against the Bogside workers. Above all they were determined to prevent any repetition of the events of January when B-Specials and police beat up women and children, battered a 50 year old man and dragged him fifty yards, which brought on a heart attack and subsequent death. And contrary to the lies of the Stormont Government, the overwhelming force was on the side of them and their armed guards, the police and B-Specials. With sticks and stones in Belfast, the Catholic population confronted an armed mob which bristled with rifles and machine guns. In Derry the workers had prepared well before the August Days, having learnt from the bitter experiences of the past year.

In the 4 weeks preceding the dreaded August 12th Orange Parade, the workers of Bogside and Creggan expected the worst. With 40-50,000 Orange men in Derry, it was expected that the Paisleyite elements would attack the area. In response to this, a Citizens' Defence Committee was set up. This had the job of holding back any Catholic attacks on the Orange Parade, but if the area was to come under attack, to co-ordinate the defence. 1,500 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary had been drafted into the area to see "there was no trouble." But the sectarian provocations of the Paisleyites, coupled with the attempts of the police to penetrate the Bogside, ignited an explosion.

The fears of the British capitalist Press were confirmed. For weeks they had been urging that the Orange Parade be banned along with all others. In this was expressed the dilemma of the British ruling class. Fifty years ago they had consciously partitioned Ireland in order to reinforce religious prejudices, and so hold on to the most industrialised section of Ireland, where most of their loot was concentrated. By a policy of "divide and rule" they successfully derailed the social revolution that was developing at that time. But, such is the irony of history, the very same Unionist Party, installed as a bulwark against the development of united working class action, is now, by its refusal to bend to the new pressures, threatening to unleash a process pregnant with dangers for imperialism. In Rhodesia, the white elite by their refusal to cede political power to a black elite has provoked an African guerrilla war, threatening capitalist investments throughout Southern Africa. So too, the Unionist Ascendancy has by its whole history been incapable of making the necessary switch in policy in time. To have banned the Orange Parade, would have undermined its base amongst the Protestant population, which has been nourished on discrimination against the Catholic population. Caught in a dilemma they allowed the demonstration to take place. But the changes wrought by the post-war economic developments made it certain that the Catholic population, particularly the youth, would no longer accept the 40-year oppression and discrimination.

The industrial development which has taken place in this period has not been enough to offset the decline in the traditional industries, linen and shipbuilding. Added to this has been the problem of 10,000 new workers coming on to the labour market every year. The Ulster capitalists have had to use foreign investment to stimulate even the limited industrial development which has taken place. Thus massive "dowries" were given to foreign investors ‑ sometimes as much as 50% of installation costs. At the moment 40% of all the jobs in the manufacturing industry have come from these sources. The need of the British ruling class to come to terms with demands of the Civil Rights movement was determined by this factor, naked cash calculation. To have stood out against the minimum democratic demands would have meant continued armed clashes resulting in the burning down of factories, the consequent drying up of foreign investment and the collapse of the economy ‑ which would have impelled sections of the Protestant working class into action as well. But always the Unionist hierarchy have conceded too little and too late and given almost a free reign to their armed detachments.

In answer to this the Bogside fought with fury against the thuggery of the police. Under heavy siege for over 50 hours they held off the police attacks. This was despite the indiscriminate use of lethal and heavy CS gas, taken, it is believed from army stocks. As we the Derry Labour Party pointed out in our Barricade Bulletin... "The maximum amount of gas which is issued to any British police force at any one time is 80 canisters. These canisters (the ones used by the British police) contain 30 grams. The canisters used here in Derry contained 51 grams each."

As a result of the hundreds of tear gas canisters, used by the RUC, at the rate of 3 a minute, numerous babies, small children and old people are suffering from diarrhoea and other ill effects. After 50 hours, with the police unable to penetrate the Bogside unassisted, and the wind changing, so as to make the tear gas a double edged weapon - the police had to retreat.

It was at this stage that they mobilised the B-Specials, the Paisleyites in uniform, hated by the Catholic population. They were laden with 303 rifles, sub machine guns and automatic weapons. A slaughter would have followed in comparison with which the bloodletting in Belfast would have paled into insignificance, if the Labour Government had not intervened with British troops. But it would be fatal to think that the troops were used solely to defend the Catholic population from attack by the Paisleyites and B-Specials. The calculation of the ruling class again was fear of the political upheavals, destruction of property and "dangerous" political vacuum which would have been created if Civil War had followed. Sections of the workers would have learnt in action very quickly, as many Bogside workers have, to put class action first. Thus even faced with sectarian attack, the Derry Labour Party has increasingly found an eager response to the idea of appealing to the Protestant workers as can be seen by the extract printed in this issue. As absolutely necessary as it has been to defend the area against police and Paisleyite attack an opportunity has existed for appealing to Protestant workers.

Neither British nor southern troops an answer

The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the Civil Rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interest of British and Ulster Big Business. A cursory examination of their role in Aden, and their projected role in Rhodesia is an indication of this. Wilson, in answer to the demand for use of British troops, against the Rhodesia Front Government, pointedly warned that an occasion might arise when troops would have to be sent, when an armed African uprising threatened private property there.

No different would be the role of the Southern Army. Lynch's manoeuvring and electioneering, using the Irish Army, was designed more for home consumption than for anything else. Those advocates of Southern Irish Army intervention have forgotten the class basis of the Fianna Fail regime. It is this very Government of Lynch and Co., which has imprisoned striking workers, has tried to abolish proportional representation, something the Unionists used 40 years ago to reinforce their rule in the North. And if that was not enough to dispel illusions in the nature of Fianna Fail, the vicious beatings meted out to demonstrators in Dublin against Unionism should be. Any intervention by Lynch is for the benefit of Southern Irish capitalists, not for the people of Ireland. Any intervention on a capitalist basis would have resulted in a greater division of the workers on a sectarian basis.

The Northern Irish workers, both Catholic and Protestant, must rely on their own forces. Only common action through a joint defence committee can begin to defeat the grip of Tory Unionism. The vehicle for this is the Labour and Trade Unions themselves. In the heat of the August battles there were a few small signs of what could have been done if the Labour Movement had given a clear class lead. In the Belfast "Harland and Wolf" Shipyards a mass meeting of 9 thousand workers, Protestant and Catholic, responded to an appeal to refuse to fall for sectarian slogans and divisions. A Transport and General Workers Union official commented to the Sunday Times... "The initiative came entirely from the union ‑ none of the credit belongs to the management." At the same time in the Ardoyne area of Belfast it has been reported that sections of Protestant and Catholic workers came together to form common committees to defend their areas. How much more would the sectarian barriers come down if this was on a clear programme and put into practice by a united Labour Movement.

Leaders incapable of uniting workers on a programme

Those so-called Marxists who write off the Protestant population as one reactionary mass criminally ignore the vital lessons of Irish history. Only the binding together of the movement of Catholic and Protestant workers can bring about a defeat of Unionism, Fianna Fail in the South and the hold of British Imperialism. Any concession to sectarianism will only serve to drive sections of the Protestant and Catholic workers into the arms of reaction. To demand the withdrawal of the British troops, the disarming of the B-Specials and RUC in isolation is not enough. What is needed is to defeat Unionism and the system it represents and replace it with one which can solve the problems of low wages, unemployment and sectarianism.

This will not be done by a bloc of Catholic oriented movements. This has been clearly shown by the experience of the Civil Rights campaign itself.

While this movement played a very important role in mobilising thousands of people to fight for urgent and necessary reforms, its leaders are incapable of putting a clear programme which could solve the real problems of the jobless slum-dwellers ‑ Catholic and Protestant.

Only a class programme can harness the enormous energy of the Catholic and Protestant youth, clearly shown in the events of the past month, in the direction of changing society. That programme has already been outlined by the material of the Derry Labour Party (printed here), and has been consistently advocated in the pages of Militant. Its aim should be to tie the struggle for equal pay, the minimum wage, a crash programme of housing on the basis of a nationalised building industry, opening up of education facilities to all youth who wish to study, together with the demand for taking over the commanding heights of the economy, democratically managed and controlled by the working people themselves. For this programme to take on flesh it needs to be put into practice by a united Labour Movement committed to a Socialist Ireland. The NILP should take the initiative in calling such a conference of all Trade Unions, Labour Parties to form this immediately. The basis already exists in the 500,000 members of the all-Ireland TUC and in the all-Ireland Council of Labour, based on the various Labour parties. A clear concrete programme must be drawn up, putting forward a socialist alternative for all the workers.

No hope should be placed in the British ruling class or the manoeuvres of the Stormont Government. They hope to keep their profitable investments intact. To do this means to replace the traditional Unionist Government with a more "broadly based" Cabinet team. They are first trying this by pressing on the Unionist Party to disarm and dismantle the B-Specials. This was the meaning of the communiqué after the Downing St. meeting between Chichester Clarke and Wilson. The first attempts have been piecemeal. They hope to wear down the resistance of the Unionist ranks and that which is coming from the RUC and B-Specials. Eventually the Unionist Party in its old form will be forced to put on a more "liberal" mask. This would mean that sections of the Catholic middle and capitalist classes would be given more representation [in] its ranks. This in turn will probably result in a split to the Right by a section of the Unionist Party. The British ruling class wish to contain the pressures which have built up within the framework of Parliament. To do this they need a "liberal" image for a traditional-type Tory Party. At the moment, for them, Paisley is redundant. He will only be used in the event of a serious economic crisis. For the "very Reverend" to bellow about 1912 is to ignore that in 1912 the Tory Party and the ruling class backed Carson's arming of the Ulster Volunteers. At the moment they wish to defuse the situation and are prepared to make limited concessions.

Socialist Ireland

But the Northern Ireland workers must realise that these tardy "reforms" will only serve to paper over the worst abuses of the system. No lasting solution to their problems is possible on the basis of capitalism. The only force capable of this is their own, through their own party, mobilising them for action. One thing the August events will have taught big sections of the workers here, is that they are invincible, once organised and mobilised in action. Sections of the British workers have also learnt from Derry this simple lesson. London tenants are threatening "another Belfast" if eviction notices are not withdrawn. GEEC workers in Liverpool on television, when questioned on their sit down strike decision, used the example of Derry and France in May 1968 when action brings results, i.e. when concessions are forced out of the ruling class. Once the religious shell is discarded, once the parties are realigned so that it is the class issues which come to the fore, the Northern Ireland workers, Catholic and Protestant, together in common action can move to end the rule of rent, interest and profit.

August 26, 1969


Extract from "Barricades Bulletin" ‑ daily newssheet of Derry Labour Party

What are we defending?

We are defending the homes in the predominantly Catholic working class areas of Bogside and Creggan against either organised sectarian terror at the hands of the RUC or semi-organised sectarian terror at the hands of the Specials and Protestant workers who should know a lot better.

This is why the barricades are up. The barricades must stay up until we are sure we are all safe from state controlled terror or victimisation.

We are not defending the social conditions of the people in the area, the low wages, unemployment, bad housing, etc. In fact the greatest part of our fight is the fight against these conditions.

Just because barricades have to be erected around the Catholic area of Bogside doesn't mean we believe in Catholic power, this would provide no solution to our problems. People in Protestant areas have a perfect right to defend themselves if they feel they are going to be attacked by Catholic bigots.

No one should believe that the replacement of Stormont by direct rule from Westminster will provide us with jobs or houses or decent wages.

What is needed is to build a party that can defeat the Unionist Government, this would need to be a Labour Party with massive Trade Union backing, and fighting for a minimum wage, equal pay for women and working youth, and also a planned socialist economy, which would be able to supply a decent house, job and wage for all.

Working class unity in a Labour Party on this programme will provide the only real and lasting solution to the rule of sectarian terror and the terrorist rule of rent, profit and interest.

Unionists out! Build Labour Party now!

On the special edition of "Panorama" tonight a number of prominent people discussed the situation at great length. At the end of it the Chairman said, "we don't seem to be getting anywhere."

And we weren't because the central point was being ignored by everyone ‑ that it is no longer a question of reform or the pace of reform which is at issue. It is the whole basis of this State which has been called into question.

No Unionist Government will ever again peacefully send its police force into this area. That is obvious. As the article above points out direct rule from Westminster solves nothing. The incorporation of the 6 counties into the 26 would only happen via bloodshed, and would in any rate in no way help solve our economic problems ‑ indeed in many ways these would get worse.

The whole system of economic and political organisation will have to be changed ‑ both North and South. We need a movement of solidarity in the South, which fights for us by fighting against the Fianna Fail regime. Only thus can we convince the vast majority of Protestant people that we are not asking them to join the Free State as it stands.

The most cursory study of the history of Ireland in this century demonstrates that British troops are not here to help protect us, the Free State Army will do nothing to help us, and no Unionist Government can give us what we want. So we should stop fooling ourselves.

  • Smash the unionist government!
  • No trust in Tories!
  • Forward to the workers republic!



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