Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Eight

The Thirties

The Thirties were a period of class struggle nationally and internationally. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was followed by the Great Depression. There was mass unemployment everywhere. It affected the working class across the whole of Ireland and Britain. Everywhere the class struggle was on the increase. This was reflected in a left tendency within the Republican movement, where, as we have seen, the socialist tradition left behind by Connolly had never disappeared.

In Britain the betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald led to the fall of the Labour government and the establishment of the National Government in which the Tories dominated. The ruling class launched a savage campaign of cuts, slashing the already miserable benefits of the unemployed. This led to mass demonstrations of the unemployed in Britain (the Hunger Marches) and the Invergordon mutiny in Scotland, when the sailors struck against a reduction in their wage.

In the same year as the Invergordon mutiny there was a ferment among the masses in the Six Counties. The conditions of the working class in Belfast were appalling. 37 percent of houses were either overcrowded or just unfit for habitation. The situation in other parts was even worse: 50 percent of houses in Fermanagh were unfit to live in. Unemployment, which stood at 100,000 just before the War, was proportionately the higher than in Britain. It is true that the Catholics were in a worse position because they suffered from discrimination and police brutality, but there was extreme poverty and deprivation in working class Protestant areas like the Shankill.

There was a campaign of agitation against the cut in welfare benefits imposed by the government. This was a wonderful episode in the workers' struggle for better conditions. There was a fight against the Poor Law Guardians of Belfast, who were controlled by the Unionist Party. The Guardians had imposed extremely harsh conditions on unemployed workers. A march up the Newtownards Road was organised by the Revolutionary Workers Group. The demonstrators were attacked by the sectarian bigots with the aid of the police. The demonstrators were unemployed Catholics and Protestants, marching together. This showed the possibility for united class action, once a fighting lead is given.

Thousands of Outdoor Relief workers took to the streets to protest against the government's measures. Some of these protests ended up in clashes with the police and in a series of riots, with a large number of people being arrested. The worst riot occurred on the Falls Road where two protesters, Samuel Baxter and John Keenan, were shot dead.

The Outdoor Relief workers replied with a massive protest to Queens Square, organised by the Revolutionary Workers Groups. There were about 40,000 workers in Queens Square on the night of 11th October 1932. They came from all parts of Belfast, and from Derry and Coleraine. Four hundred workers set out to walk from Dublin to Belfast, but as they reached the border the RUC stopped them and turned most of them back. But some did manage to reach Belfast and took part in the march.

These stormy events give the lie to those who claim that the Protestant people of the Six Counties form one reactionary mass, and that it is impossible for workers of both communities to unite in struggle against the bosses. On the contrary, at every decisive moment of the class struggle there has been a clear tendency towards class unity which alone can cut across sectarianism. Connolly and Larkin always based themselves on this. If the workers are given a clear lead they will always respond. The problem is when such a lead is not given, or when an incorrect lead is given. It is necessary to draw all the conclusions from this fact.

Bourgeoisie fails

From the beginning, the Six County statelet was not economically viable and had to be maintained by huge subsidies from London. However, the situation in the South was even worse. Only in the recent period has there been a significant upturn in the economy. For decades the situation was so bad that many Irish people emigrated to England and to the Six Counties in search of jobs. In 1947 Stormont felt obliged to pass a Safeguarding Employment Act to limit rising emigration from the Republic.

The Six Counties' economic dependence on Britain was such that in the mid Sixties one authority (R.J. Lawrence, The Government of Northern Ireland: Public Finances and Public Services, 1921-64, Oxford, 1965) calculated that "if Ulster were independent and had to pay for her own defence and for diplomatic consular and other 'imperial' services, she would have either to cut domestic spending by some £50 million a year or raise that sum by taxation. Either course would be catastrophic." (Quoted by P. Johnson, op. cit., p. 216.)

Decades after achieving formal independence, the South remained heavily dependent upon British capitalism. The post boxes were painted green, but English pounds remained legal tender both north and south of the border. Until very recently, the South remained a predominantly agrarian, economically backward country. Between 1945 and 1961 the population of the South of Ireland declined still further. It lost 500,000 people. This figure alone shows that the Southern bourgeoisie has not succeeded in developing Ireland or even achieving genuine independence. An official report on economic development noted in 1958:

"After 35 years of native government people are asking whether we can achieve an acceptable degree of economic progress. The common talk among parents in the towns, as well as in rural Ireland, is of their children having to emigrate as soon as their education is completed in order to secure a reasonable standard of living." (ibid., pp. 216-7.)

The achievement of formal independence for the south on a capitalist basis solved nothing for the people of Ireland. Until recently, economic emigration sapped the population of the South. The Southern capitalists are utterly dependent on foreign capital - British, American, and European. The Irish language has declined dramatically. The number of native Irish speakers had fallen to under 70,000 by 1966 - that is, less than 20 percent of the level at the time of independence. Since then the situation has deteriorated still further. Connolly's warnings about what would happen in an independent capitalist Ireland have been cruelly confirmed.

Moves towards reunification

During this period the IRA was engaged in its border campaign (1956-62) which was doomed to failure. It is sufficient to note that the IRA was compelled to operate from bases in the South. They had no real base in the North. By 1962, they had to admit that the whole episode had ended in failure. The New York Times wrote: "They have been condemned by the most deadly of all judgments, political indifference (…) The present generation know that if Partition is ever to be ended it must be by peaceful arrangements. " (The New York Times, February 26th, 1962.)

The economy of the South improved somewhat in the course of the 1960s, and emigration was virtually halted. In an attempt to maintain the differential with the South, the government of the Six Counties launched its own plan for economic development, calling for the creation of 65,000 new jobs. Over a seven-year period (1963-9), nearly sixty new factories were established in the North, where the level of unemployment went down from four times to three times the United Kingdom average.

The relations between London and Dublin at this time were excellent. Why should they not be, when the Republic was little more than a satellite of British imperialism? In fact, there was a movement towards the integration of the North and South by common agreement of the Irish and British ruling classes. Sean Lemass entered into negotiations with Terence O'Neill (1963-69) to bring about closer relations with the Six Counties, with the encouragement of London. In 1965 O'Neill and Lemass exchanged visits. It was at this time that Lemass famously claimed Connolly's ideas to be outdated…

The fact that British imperialism was preparing the way for a handover of the North is not seriously in doubt. London was prodding O'Neill to enter into closer relations with the South and to introduce reforms to head off a social explosion. In November 1968, after a cabinet meeting, O'Neill announced a five-point reform programme, including a new system to allocate housing, the abolition of the business vote in local elections and a review of the Special Powers Act. One week later the Electoral Law (Amendment) Act was passed, abolishing university seats and multiple votes in parliamentary elections and providing for a new electoral boundary commission.

On 9 December he made a television broadcast, beginning with the words: "Ulster stands at the crossroads", asking for the collaboration of both Protestants and Catholics and warning Unionists that both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath had told him that any attempt to sabotage the reform programme could lead to direct intervention by Westminster. At this stage, probably the majority of Catholics in the Six Counties would have been prepared to settle for these reforms. After his retirement O'Neill claimed: "I had won the trust of Catholics as no previous prime minister had ever been able to do. But I was unable to restore to them the rights that small-minded men had removed from them during the first years of Northern Ireland's existence." (P. Johnson, op. cit. p. 223.)

However, the carefully laid plans for reform were immediately shattered against the rock of sectarianism. For generations British imperialism had created this Frankenstein's monster. At a critical point it was unable to control the monster created by its own hands. The reforms from the top encouraged the rapid rise of the Civil Rights movement in the Six Counties, which was met by a ferocious backlash on the part of the Loyalist bigots and Unionist reactionaries. The moves towards closer links caused a crisis among the Unionists. In 1966 and again in 1967, there were attempts to oust O'Neill from the leadership of the Unionist Party. His action in inviting Lemass to Belfast caused a furore of opposition within Unionism, and helped to spark off the events of 1968.

The Civil Rights movement

The Civil Rights movement was really a reflection of the international situation and especially the revolutionary movement in France in May 1968. This was entirely in line with Irish history. The revolt of the United Irishmen was inspired by the French revolution of 1789-93. The Easter Rising of 1916 was a direct result of the imperialist World War. The students of the north of Ireland were no different to their counterparts in Paris. The Civil Rights movement began with a march of 2,500 demonstrators from Coalisland to Dungannon on Saturday, 24 August, 1968. Protestant bigots staged vicious attacks against the demonstrators. When the marchers attempted to cross Craigavon bridge, the police made a baton charge. Riot equipment was used, stones thrown and 88 people were injured - 77 civilians and 11 police.

It is important to note that the IRA had little or nothing to do with the Civil Rights movement, which was influenced by Marxism and revolutionary ideas. The movement contained both Catholics and Protestants. In particular the Derry Young Socialists played a key role, fighting the bigots on the barricades. On 19th April there was a ferocious battle in Derry in which the people fought back against their tormentors. The figures tell their own story. This time 209 police were injured, against 79 civilians. Faced with a barrage of petrol bombs, the authorities were forced to use armoured cars. The next day, O'Neill resigned and the whole reform programme was consigned to the dustbin.

The only way to win reforms is through mass struggle. In general, meaningful reforms are the by-product of revolution. Matters from now on would be decided, not in the corridors of Stormont and Westminster, but on the streets, where a bloody struggle for power was unfolding. On 18th March, the Civil Rights Association announced that it would continue and intensify its campaign of civil disobedience. It put forward a programme of transitional demands, including: One person, one vote in local government elections; votes at eighteen; an independent Boundaries Commisssion to determine electoral boundaries; a fair housing allocation system; anti-discrimination laws for employment; a review of the Special powers Act and disbandment of the B-Specials.

Bernadette Devlin won an election in mid-Ulster at this time and correctly went to Westminster to put her case, which she did very effectively.

The Provisional IRA

The so-called "traditional Republicans" and the socialist Republicans have long formed two clearly identifiable and contradictory tendencies. In the Thirties and Forties we had the traditionalist Sean Russell and the Republican Socialist Frank Ryan. Sean Cronin and Ruairi O Bradaigh represented the self-same class tendencies in the fifties. Although at the time it was not so clear, these leaders represented two different tendencies - and, in the last analysis, two antagonistic class interests.

The socialist trend in Republicanism was itself divided between two contradictory tendencies - the Stalinist reformists and the revolutionary Socialists. In the sixties Cathal Goulding represented the left wing and Ruairi O Bradaigh the "traditionalists". In the Sixties most of the traditionalists left the movement. But they remained a major influence. After the failure of the 1950s border campaign, the IRA fell under the control of the Stalinists, who steered it away from the old militarism - which was very good - and towards reformism and pacifism - which was very bad.

When the Republicans left the prisons in the sixties, we find a heavy influence of the CPNI (that became the CPI). Roy Johnson of the British Communist Party was seconded to the leadership of the Republican Movement. By this time the left wing had control of the leadership. This was a golden opportunity to return it to the revolutionary class traditions of Connolly, but unfortunately the Stalinists took the movement down the reformist road, with disastrous consequences.

1966 was a turning point. A number of young people began to join the movement. They were radical in outlook and looking for the revolutionary road. However this did not fit in with the schemes of the then leadership of the Republican Movement. The latter did not have a revolutionary perspective and consequently were taken by surprise by the events of 1969, when the North was moving fast in the direction of civil war. On 12th August in the Catholic Bogside district of Derry the barricades went up in response to attacks by the combined forces of the RUC and Protestant mobs. Having fought off the forces of reaction, the revolutionary youth raised Republican flags and proclaimed the Bogside Free Derry.

The Stalinist leadership was taken aback by the revolutionary movement in the North, for which they were completely unprepared. They had moved away from the armed struggle, but had made the mistake of getting rid of their weapons. Here, however, the question of arms was posed point-blank, in the first place to defend the Catholic workers' districts. The young people inevitably looked to the IRA to provide arms and defend the Catholic areas against pogroms. But no arms were forthcoming. The revolutionary youth wrote on the walls the ironical slogan: IRA = "I ran away". The revolutionary potential was clearly present, but the revolution was not armed. What was needed was an armed workers defence force, based on the trade unions, on the lines of Connolly's ICA.

Nature abhors a vacuum. When there was no revolutionary force ready and able to take over the leadership, the forces of reaction raised their head. Fearing the development of a revolutionary movement in the North, the Irish bourgeoisie took steps to divert it along nationalist lines. As a key part of this strategy they deliberately split the IRA, which was too left wing for their liking. Large amounts of money were supplied to the right wing, conservative, militaristic elements to set up a rival organization, the Provisional IRA, in opposition to the "Officials", as they became known.

The split in the Republican movement did not take place in a straightforward manner. Before the Provisionals were formed in January there were a number of minor splits between September '69 and January '70. Many of those who had left the IRA in 1966, because of the introduction of Marxist policies, returned to join the Provisonals. These were fanatical anti-Communists. This development suited the interests of the ruling class in the South very well, and they supported it by all the means at their disposal.

It was the Southern state intelligence services that set up and organized the Provisionals. The money and the guns of the Provos were supplied through the agency of two right wing ministers in the Dublin government - Blaney and Houghey. Large sums came from the USA, and were directed to the anti-Communist, pro-sectarian elements in the winter of 1968-69. Paradoxically, the leading element was an Englishman living in the Republic under the name of Sean MacStiofain.

When the population of the Six Counties defiantly resisted the Stormont repression and fought the local forces of "law and order" to a standstill, the Stormont government had to call in the British army to suppress the insurgents. But they were not the only ones who wanted such an intervention. The truth is that both the British and Irish ruling classes were terrified of the prospect of social revolution in the Six Counties that could easily spread to the South and to Britain. They conspired together to crush the revolution at all costs.

Derry Young Socialists

In Derry, thanks in no small measure to the Marxist leadership of the Young Socialists, the Bogside district was under the control of the Derry Citizens Defence Committee. Following a stone-throwing incident, the RUC began to attack. There was an imminent danger of a pogrom. As a result, the people of the Bogside and Creggan rose up to defend their areas, setting up barricades. Despite fierce fighting, the forces of the state were unable to penetrate their defences and enter the Bogside. Jack Lynch, the Fianna Fail prime minister in Dublin, made a broadcast in which he informed the people of Ireland that he was asking Britain to apply for a United Nations peacekeeping force, since Stormont was "no longer in control". This was a direct instigation to Britain to intervene in the North to re-establish order.

The British government promptly took its cue from Dublin. On 14th August British troops were ordered into Derry by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan. The next day they entered Belfast. By the end of that week there were 6,000 British troops in the Six Counties. The excuse - accepted by many, including it must be stated the Lefts in the British Labour Party and organizations like the SWP, who subsequently became uncritical cheerleaders for the Provos - was that they had come to defend the Catholics and keep the peace. But nothing was solved. In the five years of the O'Neill government only three people had died in sectarian incidents. In the summer of 1969 nine people were killed, 150 were wounded by gunfire, 500 houses were destroyed and over 2,000 people were made homeless. And that was nothing compared to the horrors that lay ahead.

At first the British troops had been welcomed by many Catholics. But soon the real nature of the forces of British imperialism became clear. Their main purpose was to destroy the revolutionary movement that was developing in the North. Their main target was the "Communists", as they made clear. This aim was shared by the bourgeois rulers in the South, who used the Provisional IRA for this purpose. Nowadays it has been forgotten or is not known by many, but the Provos were viciously anti-Communist. Their activities included the burning of Marxist books. In the words of Connor Cruise O'Brien, "There was no 'taint of Communism' about them, nothing puzzling or foreign at all (…) These Provisionals weren't like the old crowd - they were getting the guns and they were ready to use them." (Connor Cruise O'Brien, States of Ireland, London, 1972.)

Some IRA people fought against the British and the RUC, although the Provisionals have always denied this, because these were the people who later joined the Republican socialist movement. But the Provos had most of the arms, and that resulted in their rapid growth at the expense of the left wing. When the repressive face of British imperialism was revealed, the revolutionary youth lined up to join the only people who offered them what they were demanding. The Provos grew by leaps and bounds, leaving the Officials standing. Before 1968 the IRA had no real base in the Six Counties. They played at best a secondary role in the mass Civil Rights movement. But virtually overnight they got a mass base. They moved into the Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry, setting up bases, arms caches and safe houses.

Crisis in the Officials

No-go areas were set up in many areas of Belfast and Derry. Citizen Defence Committees, were set up to police these areas. These committees were in fact controlled by the Official IRA. More correctly, the elements who organized the no-go areas were the rank and file of the Official IRA, who later formed, the IRSP. There were deep contradictions within the Officials. In 1970 there was an emergency Ard Fheis, as a result of what had happened in August '69. After the Provisionals were formed what was left behind was a mixed bag, and it soon emerged that there were serious differences in the ranks.

The leadership of the Officials did not oppose the negotiations which took place with the British Civil Service. The truth is that both the Official IRA and the Provisional leaderships took part in these negotiations. The conditions were that control of the no-go areas should be taken out of the hands of the rank and file, and handed back to the Republican Leadership. The British GOC informed the O/C of the Officials that the rank and file were"communists" and that these no-go areas were being referred to as Soviets.

Even though many in the leadership of the Officials did not mind the term communist, this was a period of much anti-communist propaganda being thrown at them by the Provisionals. While posing as the defenders of the Catholic areas, however, the Provos were pursuing their own agenda. The real aim of the Provos was to cut across the Civil Rights movement and undermine the "Communist" Officials, pushing the border issue once more to the forefront. They sought to sever the link between the national and social aspects of the struggle in order to promote the former and relegate the latter to some distant future. The Provos had the great advantage of possessing the arms that the young people so desperately needed. They offered guns and what seemed to be a simple policy: "Get the British troops out".

In fact, the policy of the Provos was a delusion. To imagine that it was possible to defeat the might of the British army in single combat was madness, as subsequently became only too clear. Nevertheless, that was their aim at the time. The greatest tragedy in recent Irish history is that many of the most heroic and self-sacrificing youth were seduced by the siren call of the Provisional IRA. It has taken thirty years and 3,500 deaths for it to become clear that the whole strategy, tactics and methodology of the Provisionals was fatally flawed.

The immediate effect of the methods of the Provos was to exacerbate sectarianism. Yet the only hope for defeating reaction was to cut across the sectarian divide. This was possible, on condition that the correct policies and tactics had been pursued. Without any leadership there were many local initiatives to combat sectarianism. In August 1969 a meeting of 9,000 workers at the big Harland and Wolff shipyard declared their opposition to the sectarian intimidation of Catholics. Joint patrols of Catholic and Protestant workers were established in the Ardoyne and several other areas.

By the summer of 1969 local defence groups - almost all of them non-sectarian - had been formed in Ballymurphy, Springhill, Turf Lodge, New Barnsley, Springmartin, Highfield and Clonard. If this tendency had been encouraged, and the patrols had been armed, an entirely different perspective would have opened up. Instead, the sectarian paramilitary organizations of both sides launched a vicious campaign of intimidation to drive people of the other religion from their homes and create separate enclaves. Families were burned out of their houses just on the basis of their supposed religious affiliation. This systematic criminal activity was intended to reinforce the sectarian divide and turn it into an abyss. It succeeded only too well.