The decision by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send British troops into Northern Ireland in 1969 reflected that government's abandonment of any semblance of socialist policies. It was a squandered opportunity that tied the Labour leadership to the blind alley of 'bipartisanship' for the next three decades.
The explosion of violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969 horrified the British ruling class. The statelet tottered on the brink of all out civil war. There were furious battles on the streets of Derry. Belfast was ablaze as sectarian mobs burnt down workers' homes while nearly 5,000 Catholics fled to makeshift refugee camps on the southern side of the Border.
The ruling class feared the conflict would spill into British cities - such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool - with their large Irish populations. More ominously, that such a sectarian maelstrom had been allowed to develop was prompting stern retorts from Britain's major trading partners, in particular the USA with its influential Irish lobby hinting at economic reprisals.
There was also growing unease in Whitehall at the small but growing development of the conflict taking on all the attributes of a social revolution: in Derry the Northern Ireland state machine - and British rule - had been expelled from the 'No Go' areas of the Bogside. The workers were policing and organising welfare services themselves, while the Derry Young Socialists controlled the local radio station, Free Derry, and directed the fighting against the RUC and B-Specials from the street barricades. The situation was out of the ruling classes' control - and that made them nervous.
The British Army was sent in as a 'temporary' measure to regain control for the British state. That the 1964-70 Labour government should work at the behest of the interests of the ruling class should come as no surprise. On every other front, from cutting back the welfare state to attacking workers' rights, they had followed the capitalist line. As Karl Marx had always warned, those workers' representatives who took office thinking they could reform capitalism rather than transform society, merely became the "executive committee of the ruling class."
It would be wrong however to think that the idea to dispatch the army was the sole preserve of Labour's right wing. The self-appointed champions of the Civil Rights movement, from John Hume to Bernadette Devlin, were screaming down the telephone to the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan to send in the troops.
Their shrill voices were joined by those from throughout the labour movement, from the left reformists to the ultra-left.
Tribune, then a major voice of the Labour left, demanded on August 8th 1969: "...how much of the present violence is it (the Labour Government) going to watch before it asserts its authority and accepts its responsibility to protect the lives and effects of law-abiding people in this part of the UK? It would take a corps of security officers along with a division of armoured infantry to ensure peace in the present ominous situation."
After the troops went in, Tribune added on August 22nd 1969: "General Freeland has only 6,000 troops in Ireland: they must be heavily reinforced."
This reliance on the state machine of British imperialism - which created the situation in the first place - was not restricted to the left reformists. The ultra left shared these illusions. Socialist Worker, in its reports on the deployment of British troops declared on August 21st 1969: "Because the troops do not have the same ingrained hatreds of the RUC and B Specials, they will not behave with the same viciousness..." and that "The deployment of British troops in Ulster provides some sort of security against lawlessness of the RUC and B Specials." The demand to withdraw the troops was conspicuous by its absence.
Even the IRA on 18th August 1969 issued a statement calling for the deployment of troops - not British ones of course; the IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding demanded that the Irish Army "invade" the six counties and rush to the aid of the Catholic communities - which would have been no better recipe for all-out war in the province.
It was the Marxists alone - along with Derry Labour Party - who understood the dangers of relying on the British state machine to defend Northern Ireland workers. As they stated at the time: "The call for the entry of the British Army 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 interests of Ulster big business."
Derry Labour Party, in their Barricades Bulletin, forewarned: "The troops cannot stay on guard duty forever. When they come into the area they will be coming to re-establish the Government's control and pave the way for the RUC."
The call by the Marxists was taken to the 1969 Labour Party conference in October where a resolution was moved and it was argued there that "...it would be a mistake to think they (the British Army) were sent there solely to defend the Catholic population... We have got to back up our comrades in Northern Ireland, we have got to demand, as they do, the withdrawal of British troops. British troops have never acted in the interests of the working class in any country."
Of course, the demand to withdraw the troops was not raised in isolation. To do so would have appeared madness to the Catholic workers at the time serving soldiers cups of tea, relieved at a temporary respite at least from the continuous onslaught by the RUC and loyalist terror gangs. Marxism linked their demand to calls for the formation of a workers' defence force, based on the trade unions, to defend working class areas from attack from any quarter. They also raised socialist demands around which Catholic and Protestant workers could unite.
Unfortunately the call by the Marxists fell on deaf ears. The Labour government simply attempted to contain the situation, viewing it as a temporary aberration, although the worst of the discriminatory measures against the Catholics (see the previous article in Socialist Appeal Issue 54) were reformed. But the Northern Ireland statelet remained intact and the reigns of repression were set in place ready to be taken up by the Tories following Labour's election defeat in 1970.
The 1970 General Election should have presented an opportunity for Labour to go on the offensive with a socialist programme, including a socialist solution for Northern Ireland. Instead, the Labour leadership retreated behind its programme of counter reforms offering only further attacks on workers' rights, as outlined in their 'In Place Of Strife' policy. Standing on their dismal record they duly lost to Ted Heath and his gang of "yesterday's men."
The opportunity was squandered too by the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). They received a tremendous 100,000 votes, reflecting the shift to the left in Northern Irish society following the tumultuous events of 1969. Even as late as 1971, workers were still looking to the NILP for a lead, giving them 40% of the vote in a by-election.
But this support was betrayed. The NILP remained glued to pro-Unionist policies, fighting the election under the slogan of "Full British Rights, Full British Standards!" This hardly rallied those Catholics to their banner who had been suffering "full British standards" in their most reactionary form for decades.
The NILP also put forward the idea of the formation of a "Community Government", with the right wing Unionist leader Brian Faulkener as the suggested Prime Minister of such a government! Indeed, NILP leader David Bleakley - in keeping with the old 'Walker/Midgley' tradition - put his own ideas into action when the workers 'failed' him and became Stormont's Minister for Community Relations under Faulkner's subsequent administration, tying the NILP forever to the Unionists and finally heralding its demise and disappearance from Northern Irish politics.
Alongside the NILP, left leaning Nationalists also pushed up their support. The vaguely socialist 'Peoples Democracy' gained 27% of the vote, while Bernadette Devlin standing as a 'Unity' candidate in a by-election gained the votes of 1,500 Protestant workers.
The shift to the left did not stop at the border. The was also a huge growth in the Irish Labour Party, following the events in the North. In the North West of the Irish state, there had only been one ILP branch - by 1969 there were 10. In 1969, in a general election, the ILP stood on its most radical programme and gained 17% of the vote, one of its best results ever.
Yet despite the workers both North and South, Catholic and Protestant, turning to the traditional organisations looking for a lead as the crisis heightened, their aspirations were thwarted by the inaction of the labour leaders, and their reliance on British capitalism to resolve the crisis. The labour leaders merely paved the way for Tory reaction.
The Heath government of 1970 unleashed a new wave of repression, squashing any final illusions that the British Army would act in the interests of workers. Overnight, at the direction of the British ruling class - and backed by the closet approval of the Southern capitalist class - the army became as brutal as the RUC and the B-Specials.
Their opening gambit was the 'Rape of the Falls'. A curfew was imposed on the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast, effectively imprisoning 30,000 residents while the army carried out a brutal house to house search, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, with 244 arrests.
This was followed by Internment in 1971. By the following year nearly 1,000 had been detained without trial or charge, with many being tortured. Then came Operation Motorman, with tanks being used to smash their way into the former 'No Go' areas.
These vicious assaults culminated with Bloody Sunday, where the Parachute Regiment turned their guns on a 3,000 strong Civil Rights march in January 1972, leaving 14 dead. Despite the pathetic claims by this elite regiment that they were under attack, most of the dead were shot in the back.
Driven to a frenzy by this onslaught - and because of the vacuum left by the inaction of the Labour leaders - Catholic workers flocked to join the Provisional IRA in droves.
The Provos had split from the Official IRA with the backing - in finance, guns and training by the Southern state's secret service - of sections of the Southern Irish ruling class, based around Charles Haughey. Irish big business and feared that the left leaning Official IRA could take the lead in the mass discontent which had followed the 1969 crisis, leading to a social revolution at home. Part of the deal with the Provos was that they also kept their attacks to the North, ensuring the safety of the Southern capitalists' property and profits.
The Provos' main thrust was the 'military' campaign - a campaign of individual terrorism that would simply drive the British Army, and presumably one million Protestants also, from Northern Ireland. The wave of bombings and assassinations were met tit for tat by the Loyalist thugs - by the end of 1972, Northern Ireland was in the depth of sectarianism, with 467 mainly innocent workers murdered and thousands more maimed and injured.
Yet even during these days of darkness, rank and file trade unionists gave a glimpse of what could have been achieved if the Labour and trade union leaders had raised their heads above the parapet and given even just an ounce of leadership.
A one day strike in Derry against Internment was joined by 8,000 workers. 30,000 families took part in rent and rate strikes. But without a class based lead, and with the labour leaders rallying to their respective capitalist states, the movement was isolated to the Catholic community.
The labour movement had a second chance with the explosion of anger which followed Bloody Sunday. 70,000 protested in Newry and the three day general strike swept through most of the west of Northern Ireland.
This time however, given the enormity of the events, Protestant workers began to join the struggle. There was significant Protestant participation in the strikes in Derry at the Dupont plant and the Post Office. Staff and students at the mainly Protestant Colraine University joined the strike wave while 400 students attended a debate on the question of a "Workers' Republic", between a Unionist MP and Ted Grant. In London meanwhile, many workers joined their Irish workmates in protest strikes across the city's building sites.
Yet once again the momentum was lost. The demonstration in Dublin against Bloody Sunday perhaps typified the consequences of the labour leadership's failure to act. 60,000 workers turned out to demonstrate their anger. Left leaderless with no direction given by either the Irish Labour Party or the trade union leaders, the workers in their frustration turned on the British Embassy and burnt it to the ground.
Similarly in the North, the Labour and trade union leaders sat on their hands giving only minimal criticisms of the worst excesses of military repression - they merely supported the call for an inquiry into Bloody Sunday by Lord Widgery (later dubbed Lord Whitewash), or demanded direct rule from Westminster, as though that would make a ha'penny of difference. As they retreated further into a bipartisan agreement with the Tories, so Northern Ireland slid deeper and deeper into the mire of sectarian reaction.
Hopes were raised with the Labour election victory of 1974. But Labour merely took its turn in the repressor's chair - and then reaped the consequences.