From Socialist Review, No.6, October 1978, pp.19-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
1968 was the year it dawned on Derry. And on every other area with a sizable Catholic population in the North of Ireland. The long night finally lifted and, all around, people woke up and began to wonder what things we might be able to do now that daylight had suddenly broken. There were vivid faces everywhere.
It is difficult now to convey – or even to remember – how heady it all was. Catholic workers suddenly had a sense of achievement. Something we had never felt before. What exactly it was that we had achieved, or where it might lead to, no-one was quite sure. But that didn’t matter. Or at least it didn’t seem to at the time. It was enough to savour the feeling.
Politics, for as long as any but the oldest could remember, had been as unchanging as the hills. Indeed, in a sense, for practical purposes, there hadn’t been any politics.
We knew that we were being badly done by, that we had more than our fair share of poverty, bad houses, unemployment, and no power at all even in the areas where we were in a majority. We felt the constant, pin-pricking humiliations of day-to-day discrimination. And we knew that it all happened because we were Catholics. It was accepted. A cross to bear. A price we paid for being true to our own traditions and the old ideal of a united Ireland. Nobody made much of a fuss about it, there being no point.
What politics we had within our own areas was dominated by the Nationalists, the rump of Parnell’s party, its head long dead, still protruding into the present.
Nationalist candidates, particularly in rural and semi-rural areas, were not selected. They were anointed. There were not a few who believed that it was, literally, a sin to vote any other way. Every Nationalist’s nomination paper was countersigned by the parish priest.
And what the Nationalists told us – echoing what we believed already anyway – was that there would always be discrimination while the Northern State existed, no hope of succour until it was ended. And we couldn’t see any way of ending it. The IRA’s last campaign against the border had fizzled out in demoralising fiasco in the early 1960s. What Republicans were left were isolated, old men mainly, accorded some honour for the selfless, hopeless fight they had put up in times past, but with little now to offer. There was nothing for us to do but suffer on and wait for deliverance to come sometime, from somewhere, in the future.
It is possible, in retrospect, to identify the small signs of impending change in the consciousness of the Catholic workers from the mid 1960s. Television had a little to do with it: for all our poverty quite a few houses acquired a window on the world, and looked out. The decline of the traditional, local Unionist-owned industries like linen and heavy engineering, and their replacement by branches of multi-nationals like DuPonts that, too, although old patterns of employment (and unemployment) persisted, hinted at a shift in the structure of power.
And there was the 1947 Education Act (the belated extension to the North of the British 1944 Act) which provided free places in secondary schools for any who passed the 11-plus. By the 1960s it had been in operation long enough to produce a sprinkling of graduates from the Catholic working class and, every year, a batch of Senior Certificate holders (the GCE).
The church-controlled schools we went to were hot-beds of reaction and clerical snobbery. But they did represent a possible means of escape from the life for which, hitherto, we had all been ‘destined’. It became possible for boys and girls from places like the Bogside and the Falls to ‘do well’. And that increased resentment that there were still well-defined areas of local life from which we were shut out.
When we were all hewers of wood and drawers of water and couldn’t get work from the corporation, we resented it. But not as much as we did when we came strutting from the local grammar school festooned with certificates of academic accomplishment and still couldn’t get wood-hewer’s work from the corporation. Then there was a deal of determination just not to stand for it much more.
None of these things was vital in itself. None of them was perceived at the time as being particularly significant. They were imperceptively small, subterranean slips presaging the earthquake to come.
At the beginning of 1968 Eddie AcAteer, president of the Nationalist Party and Stormont MP for the Bogside, issued a New Year Message to constituents via the Derry Journal. In it, he announced that he could ‘smell sulphur in the air’. Eddie was and is noted for his sensitive nostrils. What he meant was that in many Catholic areas in the North small noisy groups of mainly Catholic malcontents had begun shouting the odds, challenging the Unionists and jeering at the Nationalists for complicity in the set-up. And they were not going about their business in the time-dishonoured ways.
Tenants’ Associations were mushrooming. And unemployed Action Committees. Branches of Young Socialists and Young Republicans popped up in the most unexpected places. Squatting, the harassment of landlords, the disruption of official functions, pickets outside Mayors’ houses, main roads blocked by sit-downs: it was all happening.
One leader of the Northern Ireland Labour Party lamented to his Executive that a ‘new, tough element’ was abroad in the land – even, damn! in branches of the NILP itself.
When the earthquake finally came, however, even the most articulate and self-assured of the tough elements were as bewildered as anyone else by the changed contours of the political scene afterwards. One morning of 6 October – the day after the first Derry Civil Rights March was batoned off the streets by the Royal Ulster Constabulary – there was a palpable sense of excitement around the Bogside. There were knots of people every where debating what to do next. Politics buzzed. And coming clear from the hubbub was a conviction, a certainty, that nothing was ever going to be the same again. No-one knew exactly what was possible, so everything was.
That was a marvellous, magic thing to happen – as exhilarating to be involved in, I’d guess, as the Carnival Against the Nazis. But then, exhilaration is not enough.
Nobody knew what was possible, because in the frenetic days which led up to 5 October, nobody had stopped to work it out, or refine attitudes down to ideas and apply them, or formulate a perspective and follow it. In the chaotic aftermath, which lasted well into 1969, the left, which had led towards the defensive barricades of Orangeism and breached them, could give ho clear direction for further advance.
And because of that, subsequently, taking leadership from the left proved easier than taking sweets from the average child.
It is possible – just – that the Provisional IRA would not now exist if the Left in the late 1960s had understood the nature of Northern Ireland society.
The disparate, inchoate movement which surged up and swept over the North in the wake of the 5 October riots in 1968 demanded, with one voice, ‘civil rights’: and end to discrimination in job and house allocation, freedom for all political parties to operate openly, the repeal of the Special Powers Act, fair electoral boundaries, one person one vote, and so on. Nothing outrageous.
Within the movement there were ‘militants’ and ‘moderates’ – the militants, for the most part, being those who had been involved from the outset and who had detonated the Derry events, the moderates, with few exceptions being clerics, the clerically-dominated, the Catholic middle-classes and nervous Nationalists scrambling desperately to get aboard the bandwagon before it picked up to much speed.
Most of the militants were socialists; some were revolutionary socialists. There were very few Republicans. The IRA at the time was a not-very-funny joke.
The militants and the moderates disagreed about the demands the movement should put forward and the tactics to be used. Should we demand ‘fair distribution of houses’ or ‘houses for all’? Should we avoid trouble at all costs on demos or just let it rip? And so on. But about one thing we were united: partition was irrelevant. The old idea that nothing could be done until Ireland was united was turned on its head. It was necessary not to demand a united Ireland in order to get things done.
To be fair (not that fairness has much to do with it) the left’s reasons for taking this stance were not at all ignoble. United Irelandism had for so long been the "property" of craw-thumping Nationalists that the very mention of it smacked of jingoism. For decades it had been used to mobilise the Catholic working class behind middle-class and bourgeois politicians. We wanted to break away from all that, and why not?
And we wanted, insofar as it was possible, not to alienate Protestant workers who, almost to a man and woman, were fiercely opposed to the end of partition.
The problem, as we were to discover to our own cost and at some cost to the prospects of building a workers’ party, was that partition was an issue, a damnably difficult issue to face, but an issue whether we liked it or not. (Rather like the issue of Ireland for British socialists today.)
The series of marches, clashes with militant loyalists and confrontations with ‘the RUC which followed on from 5 October came to a climax in August 1969. Bogside teenagers fought off the RUC for two days while, in Belfast, the cops led Loyalists in an armed assault on the Falls Road which left hundreds of homes burned out and nine people dead. The Wilson government sent the troops in.
Hindsight is a great simplifier. It is clear now that the RUC assault on the Falls shattered the perspective of making gains within Northern Ireland. The police, the forces of the Northern state, had murderously attacks the Falls because the people there had been demanding that the State concede democracy. The conclusion drawn by Falls, people, particularly the youth, was devastatingly simple and unanswerable: there’ll be no democracy while the State exists. Smash the State. Unite Ireland.
Equally clearly, given the gable walls pock-marked by police bullets, the fight to smash the State could not be conducted with weapons of windy rhetoric and parliamentary pussy-footing. Teenagers, first in a trickle, then a torrent, poured into the Republican movement. And in so doing bypassed the left which all along had been whooping it up for revolution ... but a different revolution unfortunately to the one actually beginning to happen.
When the British Army, in time, took over the repressive role of the RUC the pattern of play matched perfectly the old Republican idea of the way things really were. The old, narrow men who had clustered in corners almost unnoticed while the blithe advocates of newer revolutionary ideas had romped towards the barricades, the old men had been right all along. Partition, the existence of the Northern State, was the central issue. Britain had always stood, and still stood, behind the Orange State.
So they and their ideology, and not we and ours, came to dominate the struggle against imperialism in Ireland.
Their ideology split the existing Republican Movement in the immediate aftermath of August 1969. Those Republicans who had been involved in the civil rights struggle had agreed with the perspective of putting partition on the long finger, and most held firm to this position even when they were swamped by kids who wanted to ‘join the Republicans’ to get their hands on a gun. The movement thus split in 1970 into ‘Officials’ and ‘Provisionals’.
The Officials, and a section of the Communist Party close to the Officials, have argued since that the Provos were deliberately set up by a faction within the ruling Fianna Fail party in the South which sought to divert attention from social and economic matters by triggering an armed anti-British campaign. There is some truth in this, but not much. Certainly, the Provos at the outset were better armed, organised and financed through the intervention of a Fianna Fail faction than would otherwise have been the case. Equally certainly, the Provos would have come into being anyway. And once they did get off the ground a united Fianna Fail joined Britain in repressing them.
Other sections of the left join with the Officials in denouncing the Provos as ‘right-wing’. And in a sense so they are. They are not Marxists. They see themselves, and it is not entirely fanciful, as the lineal descendants of the United Irishmen who rose in 1798 against British rule, led by Wolfe Tone, ‘the Father of Irish Republicanism’. That rising was inspired by the American and French revolutions, and sought the same goals: political independence, the overthrow of feudal property relations and no brake on the rising commerce of aspirant manufacturers, parliamentary democracy. There was nothing socialist about it, nor could there have been, given the time of its inception.
Republicans trace their descent down through the Fenian Movement of the second half of the last century, the Provisional Government under Patrick Pearse which launched the Easter rising of 1916, the IRA which fought the War of Independence which ended in 1921 in sell-out and the partition settlement, and on in an unbroken line down to the present.
The Republican movement is military, the armed wing, the IRA, taking precedence over the political wing, Sinn Fein. As such, it is necessarily clandestine. And it cannot operate like, say, a socialist or social democratic party, formulating its policies and perspectives through open discussion, testing them against reality, changing them if necessary after factional disputation. Military organisations, in time of war most of all, demand loyalty from their members. Thus the old ideology survives almost unscathed, as if it had sailed through history in a time-capsule, despite the fact that it makes little sense to socialists.
But then, when the crunch came, the carriers of the socialist ideology had made little sense to the Provos’ potential recruits.
And the majority of those recruits are working-class. For the first time in its history, the majority of IRA activists come from an urban working-class rather than a small-farming background.
That is one of the reasons many go far beyond the ‘approved’ ideology of the organisation, take up left, even far-left, positions. This is reflected in Republican publications and leads occasionally to speculation that ‘the Provos are moving to the left’.
Individuals may well be. But the organisation itself is not capable of that kind of movement. And the individuals concerned have no mechanism available within the movement through which they might try to move it.
They will continue as they are, their tactics with all their occasional attendant horrors, stemming from bourgeois notions of battle, pursuing the Republican ideal through upturns and downturns, as they have done in the past seven years through botched jobs and brilliant jobs, marches for and against repression and replenishment, eyes fixed firmly on the day of deliverance when the Brits leave at last and the Orange State crumbles.
That’s what the Provos have got going for them: the fact that, unchallengably, they have taken the brunt of the British war effort, alone met it head on without wilting and ploughed doggedly through, battered and bloody and showered almost on all sides with curses and contumely. They cannot reasonably be expected now to pay serious attention to advice shouted from the sidelines.
At five o’clock on Thursday, 14 August, in 1969 a company of the Prince of Wales Own Regiment under Major Hanson marched into Waterloo Place in Derry and brought to an end two days of rioting between Bogsiders and the RUC. The next day 600 men of the Third Batallion Light Infantry took up position with fixed bayonets in Belfast and ended the attempted pogrom on the Falls Road. Britain had taken direct control of events in the North.
At Westminster Harold Wilson expressed determination to ensure that economic discrimination against Catholics and sectarian operation of the law would cease in the North. The function of the troops, it was generally understood in the North and in Britain, was to defend the Catholics from attack and to supervise the implementation of necessary reforms. Things worked out very differently. Today the British Army in the North is clearly seen by most Catholics as an instrument of oppression.
Britain’s commitment to reform was not based on any sentimental attachment to liberal ideas. It was based on the fact that the Orange machine which had run the North in Britain’s name since Partition had become redundant. It had had a role to play through the years when most industry in the North was in local, Orange ownership and was a thriving component of the British economy.
Now, however, the staple Industries like linen and heavy engineering were in rapid and irreversible decline, being replaced by branches of multinationals concentrating mainly on light engineering and synthetic fibres. Moreover, the South of Ireland, hitherto unindustrialised, had thrown open the doors to new investment – much of it British. It was no longer true that in all Ireland, only Orange capital had any real clout with Britain.
And reforms did go on the Statute book. The notorious B Special Protestant militia were abolished, to be replaced by a new part-time British Army regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment, membership of which was to be open to all. A Police Bill aimed at disarming the RUC and making it a civilian, rather than a paramilitary force was introduced. The Prevention of Incitement to Religious Hatred Act was designed to curtail the activities of Orange rabble-rousers like Ian Paisley.
A points system for the allocation of houses was devised and control of housing taken out of the hands of untrustworthy local authorities and given to a Government-appointed Housing Executive on which Catholics were fairly represented. And so on.
The reforms didn’t work. And the reason was that, while they could be pushed through Stormont under pressure, there was no machinery to implement them. Having run Northern Ireland on a sectarian basis for almost half a century, the administrative apparatus was the nub of the problem, not the instrument with which it could be solved.
For example: on the same day as the Prevention of Incitement to Religious Hatred was introduced at Stormont, another bill to make prison sentences for rioting mandatory was also brought in. This was intended to deter Catholic teenagers, who had not given up the habit of throwing rocks at any passing representative of law and order. One law against the Protestant trouble-makers, one against the Catholic trouble-makers. On the face of it nothing could have been ‘fairer’.
By the end of 1970 109 people had been charged under the new legislation with rioting. 105 were found guilty and jailed. Only one person had been charged with inciting hatred. This was a Mr John McKeague, who published a ‘song-book’ of which the following is a fair sample:
If guns were made for shooting
Mr McKeague was acquitted.
The law against the Catholic trouble makers worked. The law against the Protestant trouble makers didn’t. The assumptions on which the police force and the magistracy worked frustrated the probably-genuine wishes of the lawmakers.
To greater or lesser extents, the same happened to other reforms. As moderate politicians on all sides pointed to the progress being made, the instinctive belief of the teenagers at every street corner in Catholic ghettos that nothing had changed, and that nothing would while the State existed, hardened into a certainty.
British press coverage, which had projected the Catholics as victims and generally been sympathetic, changed radically. Editorials raged at the ‘impossible’ Irish who were never satisfied. And as the Catholic youth increasingly came into conflict with the troops, calls at Stormont for ‘stern measures’ were echoed in Fleet Street.
By the beginning of 1971 the Provisional IRA had some sort of presence in most Catholic areas and the stage was set for the inevitable conflict which, almost 2,000 deaths later, still continues.
In its efforts to win the conflict, Britain has used a combination of ruthless repression, political double-dealing and, under the guise of ‘community organising’, more subtle efforts at ‘pacification’.
Repressive measures have ranged from mass surveillance to imprisonment without trial to torture and multiple murder. It has been the use of such measures which reveals most clearly how and when the reformist strategy was decisively abandoned and Britain lined up again with the Orange ultra-right. And how hollow and dishonest British Governments have been in their protestations of liberal intent.
Internment without trial was introduced at the behest of Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, on 9 August 1971 when 319 men were picked up by troops in pre-dawn swoops. All were ill-treated. Some were tortured, by methods which the Heath Government later made a show of outlawing: ‘wall-standing’, white noise, hooding, starvation and deprivation of steep. In his book The Guinea Pigs John McGuffin describes in harrowing detail how men were selected for what was, in effect, a cynical experiment designed to test out techniques and instil terror rather than to obtain information.
Internment and torture united the Catholic community against the Army and the Stormont regime, and caused an outcry even in some liberal circles in Britain. After the torture was exposed in the Sunday Times, the Heath Government set up a committee under Lord Parker to report on interrogation techniques. It presented its findings in March of the next year.
Parker reckoned there hadn’t been any real torture, merely ill-treatment, and that circumstances had justified its use. Heath, however, accepted the minority report of former Labour Attorney General Gerald Gardiner which recommended that the five methods should not be used ever again.
In a stirring show of bipartisan camaraderie Wilson welcomed Heath’s assurances. With the Liberals tossing in their tuppence-worth of agreement, the entire House of Commons pounded its collective breast and promised that this was the end of a very unfortunate chapter.
Meanwhile, back in the North, the torturers tortured on. And as the Amnesty International report demonstrated earlier this year, they are still torturing.
Internment too has been abolished, in theory. In October 1972 a commission under Lord Diplock and including ex-TUC leader George Woodcock was charged with considering ‘what arrangements for the administration of justice in Northern Ireland could be made to deal more effectively with terrorist organisations, other than by internment ...’ Diplock’s report, published in December 1972, recommended that the Special Powers Act, which permitted internment, be abolished. Again, the Commons echoed to hosannahs, hurrahs and hallelujas as honourable members, right left and centre, welcomed the report. Internment is ended shouted the headlines.
Special Powers were replaced by ‘Emergency Provisions’, introduced in July 1973. These include: the abolition of trial by jury; stringent restrictions on the right to bail (Diplock said troops’ morale would suffer if they could see a ‘known’ terrorist on the streets on bail, the reference to ‘known’ terrorists showing Diplock believed accused persons were automatically guilty); the admission of hearsay evidence; admission of confessions even if the prosecution cannot prove them to be voluntary; onus of proof in possession of weapons cases to be placed on accused person.
The tenant of a house in which a weapon is found must prove he/she didn’t know it was there; abolition of the right of accused persons to stay silent; unlimited powers of stop, search and arrest given to soldiers and police; right to refuse to be photographed and/or fingerprinted abolished.
Added to these measures is the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act, passed in the hysterical aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombs, which introduced the concept of ‘administrative detention’ – imprisonment without trial for as long as the Home Secretary feels like it; seven days’ detention on the decision of any senior police officer; deportation without stated reason, and so on.
The combination of these measures means that people can be held without bail for more than a year before charges are dropped. That tortured confessions can be used in court – Belfast University’s Department of Law estimates that as many as 90 per cent of persons jailed for ‘terrorist’ crimes since the passage of the Emergency Provisions Act were convicted on ‘confessions’ alone. Almost all these confessions have been extracted in the main torture centre at Castlereagh Barracks.
In other words the changes made in the name of liberalisation have resulted in more, not less, torture and unjust imprisonment.
Added to all this has been the straightforward killing of opponents of the regime. The most obvious example was Bloody Sunday in Derry on 30 January 1972, when paratroopers shot 14 unarmed anti-internment marchers dead. There were, and continue to be, other less-publicised but more sinister examples.
The SAS regularly kill ‘suspects’. Recent examples have been the killings of 16-year-old John Boyle on 11 July at Dunley, Co. Antrim, when he went to check whether a suspect parcel he had earlier told the police about had been removed from a graveyard near his home; and Danny Heaney, assassinated in the street in Derry in May this year a few days after being released from seven days’ detention and questioning in the local barracks.
And the Army and police have been involved directly and indirectly in a sectarian murder campaign against Catholics, particularly in Belfast. This was at its height in 1972, when 125 people were assassinated. In the cases of two killing – those of Patrick McVeigh and Danny Rooney – exposes in the press forced the Army to admit that plain-clothes soldiers had gunned the men down – although, of course, they soldiers were never named or charged.
At the same time military authorities were tacitly supporting the Ulster Volunteer force and Ulster Defence Association in a horrific spate of blood-letting. This can be dated as beginning on 4 May 1972 when the body of Victor. Andrews was found in the Antrim Road in north Belfast. He had been stabbed 15 times. This area was to become known as ‘murder mile’. Some of the Catholics killed there were tortured unspeakably before they died. Thomas Madden was suspended from above, stripped naked and slowly cut to pieces. He had more than 150 wounds when found.
Others had had fingers, toes, genitals cut off, or eyes plucked out.
Yet while all this was going on, not only did the RUC and the Army refuse to do anything about it – they repeatedly denied that it was really happening. Official statements spoke of ‘mysterious killings’ or ‘motiveless murders’, when it was obvious to every rational person in the North that they were neither mysterious nor motiveless, but part of a systematic campaign to terrorise the Catholic community.
The RUC then put out the line that all the killings were work of one madman, variously dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ or the ‘Shankill Butcher’, even when killings were taking place simultaneously in different parts of Belfast, some of the victims being bundled into cars by three or four men.
Liason between Army personnel and the UVF – responsible for more than half the assassinations – during this period has since been documented, at least in part. For example, the UVF itself has named Captain Anthony Ling, Captain Anthony Box and Lieutenant Alan Homer, all attached to Army Intelligence HQ in Lisburn, as having developed links with senior UVF men in 1972.
And it is of interest that the McVeigh and Rooney killings were so much part of the assassination pattern that Loyalists were assumed to be responsible until the truth unexpectedly and fortuitously emerged. (For example, the truth about Patrick McVeigh came out when one of the soldiers involved had a crisis of conscience much later and revealed all to the Daily Mirror).
The thinking behind Army involvement in toleration of the assassinations is hinted at in Brigadier Frank Kitson’s book Low Intensity Operations. His theory of ‘Gangs and Counter-gangs’ has been summarised thus: ‘Faced with a revolutionary grouping it may be advantageous for the state forces to develop those forces inside the society who are opposed to the revolution and whose antagonism, combined with their detailed local knowledge, would make them ideal for carrying out operations which for political or military reasons are beyond the scope of the Army’s activities.’
In 1972 Kitson was the Army’s chief strategist in Belfast.
And his strategy worked very well. The effect of the killing of Catholics in 1972 – from Bloody Sunday through the assassination campaign – was to terrify opposition to British rule off the streets. The year had begun with 10,000 mobilised against internment on the Bloody Sunday demonstration, and 50,000 in the Newry the next week. By December, with Catholics, particularly in Belfast, almost demented with fear, demonstrations were few, and few attended them.
As well, when, towards the end of 1972, a section of the Proves began to hit back in kind and kill Protestants at random, the British Army was able to pose as the representatives of decency standing above and between two contending sets of mad, Irish killers. The IRA was discrediting itself, and increasingly isolated from mass, public support. The Catholics were more cowed than before. Kitson was promoted to Major General. And the time was ripe for a political initiative. In March 1973 a White Paper promising ‘power-sharing’ was published and elections for a new Assembly scheduled for June ...
This close coordination of military and political tactics is evident at every stage since the Army intervened. Stormont had collapsed in March 1972 when it became evident that Catholics were never going to accept its writ again. ‘Direct Rule’ was introduced, with Whitelaw as Northern Ireland Secretary. But the search for stable, internal political arrangements which would keep the North within the UK with at least minimum Catholic support went on.
And browbeaten and battered as the Catholics were, a majority went along with the ‘power-sharing’ Assembly elected 1973. In December ‘moderate’ Catholic and Protestant members of the Assembly met in Sunningdale, Berkshire, with the Prime Ministers of the UK and the South, and signed the pact which was widely touted as a final, fair solution to the age-old Irish problem. At the same time some Loyalist paramilitaries who had been involved in the assassinations, their job done, were interned. The politicians were to share power and the paramilitaries share prisons ...
This didn’t work either, the most immediate reason being that the Protestant paramilitaries, thus scorned, reasserted their strength by forcing the ‘strike’ of May 1974, and planting bombs in Dublin and Monaghan which killed 30. Whether the Army could have broken the strike is open to question. Certainly, they didn’t try. When Catholic workers in Derry tried to march in body to work and were met with Loyalist barricades, the Army baton-charged the Catholics. The Assembly collapsed.
The search for a settlement started anew. And while the Loyalist hard-liners who opposed any Catholic involvement in Government occasionally got in the way of British plans and suffered as a result, the IRA remained the main obstacle, and thus it and the community it comes from took the brunt of repression – this despite occasional attempts to co-opt the Provo leadership by open or secret talks and officially recognised ‘ceasefires’. And, naturally, the repression has been combined with energetic support for any development – like the emergence in August 1976 of the despicably opportunist ‘peace women’ – which might help undermine Provo support.
Politically, there have been few notable developments in the last three years. A ‘Constitutional Convention’ elected in May 1975 had ceased to exist by September and is scarcely remembered. A stoppage called by Paisley in May last year in support of demands for greater repression of Catholics in general and the IRA in particular ended in fiasco: Roy Mason was able convincingly to show that he was as enthusiastic a represser as had ever sat in Stormont.
Stalemate continues. The Provos, less numerous than they were in 1972 but more tightly organised and tougher, probably have the capacity to carry on a campaign at its present level indefinitely. Mason shows no sign of having another stab at an ‘acceptable’ settlement. Local bourgeois politicians, both Catholic and Protestant, have either opted for lucrative ‘consultancies’ with local branches of multinationals or eye the rich pickings in Europe. And the Army keeps up its relentless surveillance and pressure on the Catholic community.
The one notable thing which has happened in the past year is a steady resurgence of resistance. It is centred on what is happening in the H Blocks in Long Kesh.
In January 1976 it was decreed that no ‘crime’ committed after 1 March would be regarded as politically-motivated and that political status – which was won by Republican prisoners after a long hunger strike in 1972 and which allowed them to wear their own clothes and associate freely with each other – would end. Prisoners would be held not in compounds but in isolated cells in H-shaped structures modelled on Stammheim prison in Germany, which houses members of the Baader-Meinhof group.
Republicans are fiercely determined to resist being categorised as ‘common criminals’ and there are now over 250 of them ‘on the blanket’. Having refused to wear prison uniform, they are left naked but for a blanket. And being thus in breach of regulations they are denied exercise outdoors, any reading material whatever, radios, TV, conversation with one another, regular visits, food parcels or anything else which it is in the capacity of the prison authorities to deny them. In a final, desperate act of defiance the ‘blanket men’ have now refused to ‘slop out’ as a result of which cells are swimming in excrement and urine.
The standard reaction by Mason to all protests about this has been the prisoners have created these conditions themselves, by their initial refusal to don prison clothes. But protests have mounted.
The first real sign of this came on ‘internment day’, 9 August last year, when 6,000 turned out in Belfast for a march down the Falls. The useful coincidence of a visit by the English Queen in the following week brought an even bigger number out.
And this year, for the first time, there have been specifically workers’ demonstrations. After the death of AUEW member Brian Maguire in May in the Castlereagh torture centre, 4,000 people left work in Belfast for a demonstration. Similar demonstrations have been mounted by the newly-formed Trade Union Campaign Against Repression. TUCAR now has branches in Dublin, Galway, Belfast, Limerick and Derry and a real presence in some workplaces, particularly in west Belfast. Simultaneously, relatives – overwhelmingly women relatives – of the ‘blanket men’ have formed their own Relatives Action Committees. On 27 August the Tyrone RAC called a march from Coalisland to Dungannon and was staggered when upwards of 10,000 people crowded into the tiny town from all over the North. The politics of mass action, with real involvement of the organised working class, is again on the agenda.
Ten years after 5 October, the march has not been stopped. And we are no longer marching for mere ‘civil rights’, but against the root cause of all our political ills: British domination. Because the main lesson to be learned from the last decade is that the real problem never was the way Britain ran the North. It was the fact that Britain ran the North. And until Britain leaves, there’ll be no end of trouble.
Last updated: 8 March 2010