As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre, Chris Bambery recounts his involvement in attempts to organise solidarity between Scotland and the nationalist movement in the north of Ireland.
My very first political act was in August 1971, aged 15, when I joined a rally at the Mound in Edinburgh, protesting against the introduction of internment without trial in the North of Ireland. I call it a rally – in fact it was more like a running battle as Loyalists tried to stop anyone gathering with fists and kicks.
Among the protestors were members of Clann na hÉireann, the British branch of Official Sinn Fein, and socialist groups like the International Socialists (IS, now the Socialist Workers Party) and the International Marxist Group (IMG). Amid the mayhem I bought a copy of the IMG paper, Red Mole, because I liked the headline: “For the IRA, Against British Imperialism”. The headline was made famous by John Lennon, who carried it on the demonstration held in London.
These three organisations formed the backbone of the Anti Internment League (AIL) around two demands, the immediate release of all internees and the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Ireland. They did so in a tense atmosphere, facing hostility from the state and the media in Britain, as well as from the thugs. Later, I would find out that Loyalist violence had effectively driven those trying to demonstrate in solidarity with the Irish struggle off the streets of Glasgow.
On the same day in London some 30,000 people joined an AIL march through the city to a rally in Hyde Park. Despite the traditional Labourite taboo against solidarity with Irish Republicanism, the AIL was able to attract support from left Labour MPs such as Joan Maynard, Martin Flannery, Stan Newens and Stan Thorne.
In October that year some 250 gathered in Glasgow’s Blythswood Square for an Irish solidarity march. Loyalists were out in force and when an Irish tricolour was raised they carried out a full scale attack. Thirty four people were arrested, mainly Loyalists. A famous picture shows a Loyalist with a cut-throat razor slashing at the face of a plain-clothes cop he presumed was a protester. Marchers were arrested for shouting “Victory to the IRA,” as was 70 year old Harry McShane, a comrade of John Maclean.
Like many others, my convictions on the Irish question were part of a wider radicalisation. As a boy I had been influenced by watching news reports from Alabama of police and racist vigilantes breaking up a civil rights march in Selma; inspired by Muhammad Ali, in 1968 cheered on the Vietnamese Tet Offensive, watched the May events in France and was horrified by the Russia invasion of Czechoslovakia. I was watching Hibernian, the traditional Catholic, Irish football club in Edinburgh and on the covered north end of the ground joined in singing “We Shall Overcome” and “The Merry Ploughboy.” The former was picked up from the Civil Rights marchers in the north and I can still recall my anger watching news film of the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacking unarmed Civil Rights marcher in Derry in October 1968 – echoes of events in Selma.
At home I found my dad’s copy of Ernie O’Malley’s “On Another Man’s Wound,” an edition with the title “Army Without Banners.” My dad had left-wing, but not Irish nationalist sympathies. I was fascinated to read it.
The 1971 Upper Clyde Shipyard work-in against closure ensured I began reading any left books I could find in Edinburgh Central Library (once used, I discovered, by James Connolly) and would find my way to Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky and from there to his political perspectives.
On the evening of Sunday (a dreary day in Calvinist Scotland) 30 January 1972 I sat down with my parents to watch BBC News. The lead was, of course, the killings in Derry by the Paratroop Regiment of 14 unarmed civil rights marchers. The footage was shocking, made worse by army lies that they were responding to IRA attacks and that the dead were gunmen.
Bloody Sunday saw significant solidarity actions in Scotland and Britain. In the capital, several hundred students marched from Edinburgh University to the Mound and building workers walked off two sites in the city centre, organised by building workers in the IS. Frankie Drain was from Belfast and had been in the Officials before having to leave his native city. He would be a key rank and file activist on building sites for many years after.
Red Mole reported that on the Tuesday following Bloody Sunday Oxford students occupied the army recruiting office for eight hours with 400 students marching from Balliol College to join them outside. At Lancaster University, Senate House was occupied on the Monday and the next day a mass meeting of 600 students voted for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland.
The paper reported that at York University: “All normal life has virtually ground to a halt. Two demonstrations and a teach in have so far been held, with the numbers growing to nearly a thousand.”
ON the Saturday after the killings the AIL organised a protest march in central London, which drew some 30,000 people. One hundred and twenty two people were arrested after police stopped 13 coffins being brought into Downing Street (no security gates then) and mounted police charged the crowds.
On 18 February 1972 more than four hundred people attended an anti-internment meeting at Southampton town hall, addressed by James Wray, whose son Jim was killed on Bloody Sunday, and future Labour MP Kate Hoey. The secretary of the Anti-Internment League, John Grey, was presented with a cheque for £100 from Southampton Students’ Union.
The National Union of Students, then run by the Communist Party and Labour students, narrowly voted to back the AIL. In the summer of 1972 I remember an AIL march in Kirkcaldy, initiated by two miners who were members of Clann na hÉireann, and a picket of the army recruitment office in Edinburgh city centre.
In that summer of 1972 Britain was on the verge of a general strike after five London dockers, the Pentonville Five, were jailed for picketing. The docks came out and unofficial strikes spread across London with the TUC eventually saying it would call a one day general strike. The Five were released.
The IS, which had a small presence in the London docks, brought Bernadette Devlin to the protest outside Pentonville Jail in an effort to make a connection between what was happening in Britain and in the north of Ireland. It was not easy as the main force in the leadership of the dockers was the Communist Party (CP) which opposed calls for troops out and had not backed the AIL.
The CP was not massive but it had influence in the unions and on the Labour left. On the issue of Ireland it reflected the position of the trade union leaders, in both Britain and Ireland, who would not take a position on what was happening in the north of Ireland because it was “divisive.” That created a barrier to solidarity work with Ireland penetrating the working class, one we were unable to cross.
The beak down of the 1972 IRA-British truce led the British army to retake the No Go areas in Derry and West Belfast – areas barricaded off from British forces after Bloody Sunday. By now Loyalist groups were carrying out an assassination campaign aimed at killing Catholics – any Catholic regardless of their politics.
By November 1972 the Anti Internment League was a reduced force. Just 2000 people marched from Hyde Park to the Embankment in London. Speakers at the rally were from the far left: Eamonn McCann, Michael Farrell and Bernadette Devlin from Ireland together with Bob Purdie and Gerry Lawless from the IMG, which had the biggest contingent on the demo. Absent were any Labour left figures or prominent trade unionists.
Lawless told the crowd that the march was “part of a campaign to construct in Britain a movement in solidarity with the actual struggle in Ireland.” By that he clearly meant the IRA’s military struggle.
The problem with that approach was that the forces prepared to build such a movement were limited to sections of the revolutionary left and supporters of Provisional Sinn Fein, a marginal force in the Irish diaspora in Britain. In fact the Troops Out Movement (TOM) had already been launched and the AIL subsumed itself into that.
Ahead lay difficult years of trying to maintain the solidarity movement, as the North of Ireland plunged into war.
The next article in this series will examine the solidarity movement as war escalates.