(The Irish Political Review is published by ‘Athol Books’, which is a survival of the B&ICO. The driving intellectual force behind both was/is Brendan Clifford)
|From: Irish Political Review: Editorials|
|Date: November, 2018|
Civil Rights: A Retrospective!
The 50th anniversary of the start of the Northern ‘Troubles’ is upon us. Radio Ulster celebrated it on October 5th, which was ten months early if by the ‘Troubles’ is meant the War.
What happened ten months later, in mid-August 1969, was different in kind. The routine associated with the Apprentice Boys celebrations in Derry was disrupted when the police were barricaded out of the Bogside and were kept out over a number of days. The routine was that the Protestant Apprentice Boys commemorated their heroic deeds of 1688 by aggravating the Catholics in the Bogside, that the Catholics should be provoked and that police should shepherd them back into the Bogside and calm would be restored. That was just how things were.
Organised Republicanism was in a blighted condition in that period. But it did not seem credible to Unionists that the insurrection in Derry could be anything other than the first instalment of an assault by the IRA on the Union settlement. Feelings began to run high in Belfast. Loyalists prepared for action. And the Chief of Staff of the pre-Split IRA in Dublin issued a press announcement that he had given marching orders to his Belfast Brigade.
The IRA was a myth in 1969. But it had mythical existence. And the Ulster Unionist Party, which operated the devolved government at Stormont, was not the Government of a State. The Government of the state—the British Government—must be presumed to have known very well what the condition of the IRA was. Intelligence was its speciality. But it was not involved in the immediate governing of the Six County region of its state. And the Northern Ireland Government did not operate the governing apparatus of a State. It had no political connection with forty per cent of the Six County electorate. It had no Intelligence Service. And it had no patronage system for encouraging civil society tendencies favourable to itself.
In August 1969 the IRA had no existence as an Army, and its leadership was trying to dispel it as a myth. (It aimed to bring the movement over to direct action in support of leftist causes—a move of which London was well aware and deeply disapproved.) Then the Chief of Staff, all his schemes undermined by the turn of events in Derry, told Belfast Unionists that he had ordered his Belfast Brigade into action. And the Unionist masses cannot be faulted for not knowing that this was all a shadow-play.
The absurdity of the situation seemed to strike the Labour Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, on a visit to Derry early in 1970. He indicated an intention of doing something about it. But the British apparatus of State soon got him to understand that there was a reason of State for the bizarre structure of the British state in its Six Counties, and he dropped the matter.
Whitehall deployed its Army in August 1969 in order to prevent a war between its devolved Six County government and the forty per cent Catholic population with which it had come into physical conflict.
If Whitehall’s military intervention against its subordinate Belfast Government in August, and its hostile Inquiry into the conduct of that Government which had led to violent conflict, had been accompanied by political action to establish a functional political connection between the Six Counties and the governing system of the state, it is extremely improbable that a war between the Catholic community and the State could ever have come about.
What irritated the Catholic community was the subordinate Government. It was avidly interested in the politics of the state, Socialist and Conservative, but that politics had no existence in the Six Counties. And in the vestigial political life of Northern Ireland there was nothing but the conflict of community.
The Unionist Party comprehensively misrepresented the Union in that conflict. It was a Unionism that lay outside the Union and caricatured it. Devolved Unionist politics was no politics. Political life within the Union state consisted of the party-political conflict of the Tory and Labour Parties. This did not happen in Northern Ireland. The Tory and Labour parties decided not to operate in Northern Ireland. Political life in Northern Ireland was therefore excluded from the political life of the state.
The Labour Party pretended to be a United Ireland Party, while the Tory Party pretended to have the policy of treating Northern Ireland as an integral part of the Union state. But it was essentially the Tory Party that in the early 1920s decided to exclude Northern Ireland from the political life of the Union state, and the Labour Party when in Office never did anything to advance the cause of the unification of Ireland. And it was a Labour Government that in 1948, when Fine Gael launched an Anti-Partition campaign, reinforced the Ulster Unionist position against it.
And so it happened that, when the British Army was deployed within the British state to suppress a conflict in a subordinate region of the state, it destroyed such moral authority as the subordinate government exerted over the Catholic or Nationalist two-fifths of the population, without having any political authority of its own to take its place.
Governments of the state had the political and moral means of action in every other region of the state, but they had none in Northern Ireland—except the passing sentiment of the moment. It subverted its own Northern Ireland system, and effectively established a condition of anarchy—of statelessness—in the major Nationalist areas.
A new Republican Army was forged in those areas, in the first instance under the protection of the British Army. When, after eight months, Whitehall decided to stamp on this development, it put the Falls area of Belfast under curfew in order to search it for arms. The result was to accelerate the development of the new Republican Army (the Provisionals), and to revive the old Republican Army (the Officials or Stickies) which had been busy dissolving itself in August.
The conflict that came to a head in Derry and West Belfast in August 1969 occurred in the medium of an agitation of a very confused Civil Rights movement, which was attempting to operate ‘Constitutionally’ in the pressure it was exerting on the substantially unconstitutional subordinate Government. It was a conflict within the Northern Ireland facade of the British state. Demands were made on the facade, as if it was the state, on which it could not deliver because it was not the state.
Internment was sometimes given as a cause of the War, but it was an incident in the War. The War had taken root in 1971 and Internment was one of the measures with which the State tried to cope with it.
Eoghan Harris makes some effort (Sunday Independent, October 14) to recall how it happened that a very modest demand for Constitutional reform led so quickly to a major war. But memory is problematic for the ever-changing chameleon, who does not know from moment to moment what appearance he is giving off.
“radicals like McCann… and Michael Farrell of Peoples Democracy… believed the state was sectarian and wanted to bring it crashing down”.
If by “the state” Harris means the subordinate government at Stormont, which did not exercise a shred of sovereign authority, then it was beyond all question sectarian. The Ulster Unionist Party, with the Orange Order at its core, was an all-class, all-politics assembly of the Protestant community.
McCann and Farrell pressed the ‘state’—the subordinate system—too hard and brought it “crashing down”! And yet everything that was administratively necessary to a modern state continued without interruption!!
“McCann rightly recalled that the republicans who promoted a peaceful path to civil rights were those led by Cathal Goulding who loathed those who became the Provisionals: ‘It’s simply a matter of historical record that people like Eoghan Harris and the then chief of staff of the IRA, Cathal Goulding, were advocating the three-stage theory of the Irish revolution—the first stage of which was winning democracy in the North’, he said.
This impossibly complicated “three stage theory of the Irish revolution” was blown away by events before ever a shot was fired. The barricading out of the RUC from the Bogside changed everything. And it was done peacefully in the sense that the physical force involved did not include guns.
When the battle was over and the Peace Lines were drawn, the IRA was reactivated in support of a complete fantasy of revolution. Guns poured into West Belfast—and were used in an attempt to prevent the formation of a new Republican Army out of the experience of the August events.
Goulding’s IRA went into rivalry with the Provisionals, after failing to snuff them out at birth. It declared war on Britain within a medium of fantasy ideology and committed a few politically irrelevant atrocities before retiring to become an anti-Republican voice in the Free State Establishment.
Harris says that Desmond Greaves (who ran the Connolly Association front organisation of the British Communist Party), and Tony Coughlan—
“educated the British Labour Party on the case for civil rights. The result of their patient lobbying was seen when Gerry Fitt… was welcomed to the House of commons by a large cohort of Labour MPs who wanted Stormont reformed, not abolished”.
Gerry Fitt was elected as “Republican Labour”, and in practice was Republican rather than Labour. His case for reform hinged on the threat that, if there was not reform, the IRA would take over. And his speeches were couched in a form that raised cheers at the prospect of the IRA taking over.
Political parties seem to need a dimension of radical rhetoric to which they can given heartfelt expression without requiring any action. Ulster Unionism served that purpose for the British Labour Party. It relished denouncing them as Ulster ‘Tories’. The fact that the reason there were no Labour MPs from Northern Ireland was because Labour did not contest elections there was never mentioned—and the fact, though obvious in published election returns, seems to have been genuinely not seen. It could even be said that it was actively not seen.
In the Radio Ulster programme on October 5th, it was asked by the Protestant workers voted en masse for a party that never did anything for them. That was the rhetoric of Anti-Partitionism back in 1969. What caused the Protestant working class, the main body of the industrial working class in Ireland, to vote for the Tory/Unionist Party, which never did anything for them?—instead of voting for the Nationalist Party!!
The Civil Rights slogan, Tories Out, North and South! was comprehensively false in its implications. Fianna Fail was not in any sense a Tory party. It was in those days very much the reform party of the Republic. And the Ulster Unionist Party was most certainly not a piece of the Tory party. It was an alliance of all the classes and political creeds of Protestant Ulster and its only object was to keep the Six Counties as much part of the British state as possible.
Northern Ireland was governed undemocratically by being disconnected from the party-political system that governed the state, but it was included in the legislative outcome of the party conflict in the democracy of the state.
How did Cathal Goulding plan to democratise this Byzantine Northern Ireland system as the first stage in his three-stage Irish revolution? Perhaps by telling the Protestant workers that the Unionist Party never did anything for them!
And what could “democratisation” mean as applied to a subordinate system in a state? A democracy is a kind of state but Northern Ireland was no more than a dependent region of a state It was undemocratically governed by being excluded from the system of government of the state. The Official Republicans were fanatically opposed to its democratisation in that regard, and threats were freely uttered against those who advocated it.
Another popular Civil Rights slogan was British Rights For British Citizens. What lay behind this slogan, and gave it wide appeal, was the feeling that the atmosphere of Northern Ireland politics was abnormal in British terms and that it should be normalised. But the cause of the abnormality did not lie in the Ulster Unionist Party, which governed as best it could in the system that was thrust upon it. The cause lay with the governing parties of the state which boycotted the Northern Ireland region of the state without ever explaining why.
Much ingenuity went into the devising of ways of creeping up on Unionism that it wouldn’t notice—or oughtn’t notice—and getting around it. They all came to nothing because the conditioned reflex of Unionism to see that behind all slogans and demonstrations was a nationalist will to subvert it.
There were some realists in the Civil Rights movement who saw that the difficulty was that Unionist Ulster did not share any element of national sentiment with Nationalist Ireland, but they stayed silent because they knew that acknowledgement of the “two nations” reality would bring denunciation.
Harris, after going round the houses, asks in conclusion:
“Could civil rights have been conceded without bloodshed? Probably not: neither side wanted peace enough. The Peoples Democracy got it wrong. The society, not the state was sectarian.”
To the very end he must resort to evasion about “the state”. Stormont was not the State. The State was Whitehall/Westminster. The State excluded the Six Counties from its political life, and set up a devolved system that could have no political life of its own because all the substantial things that a State does continued to be done by Whitehall. The only real political business for the devolved system was to keep itself within the state by bringing out the Protestant majority at every election.
Dublin Governments all through the War operated under a Constitution which asserted Irish state sovereignty over the Six Counties and held that Northern government under British sovereignty was illegitimate. At the same time they all condemned the IRA for making war on a regime which they were Constitutionally obliged to consider illegitimate. And they never criticised that regime for being grossly undemocratic by its own terms of reference—from which it is reasonable to conclude that they preferred undemocratic government in the North, which kept it unsettled, to democratic government within the British state which might have caused it to settle down.
And they never acknowledged that what went on in the North from 1970 to 1998 was a War. They insisted on treating it as an unaccountable mass outbreak of criminality.
The exception, of course, is Charles Haughey, who said Northern Ireland was not “a viable entity”, who indulged in no internal Northern initiative but treated the issue as a matter for the States to sort out, and who helped the Adams leadership of the Provos to make a settlement advantageous to the Nationalist community.
The process of communal attrition continues. It is all that is possible in the Northern Ireland system. The complaint that the Good Friday Agreement has not worked properly, because it has not overcome the communal antagonism, is groundless. It was carefully designed to give structured expression to that antagonism, setting aside the spurious democracy that preceded it.
With regard to the sudden concern of the Dublin Government that the restoration of a customs border by Brexit would revive the War, we can see no ground for it. The removal of the customs border by the joint entry of Britain and Ireland into the EEC had nothing to do with the ending of the War, which continued for a further quarter of a century.
The cause of the War—the conditions under which it was launched and which kept it going—was the spurious democracy in which the Nationalist minority was confined. The conditions on which the War was ended was the recognition that the Six Counties were inhabited by two peoples with conflicting national sentiments, over which a common government operating by majority rule could not be established. The process of attrition between the two communities was formally provided for by the GFA, and therein lies its effectiveness.