Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Irish Solidarity: War, Street Fights and Hunger Strikes

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Chris Bambery continues his history of the Irish Solidarity movement in Scotland and Britain, from Bloody Sunday to the Good Friday settlement.

In our first instalment, we saw how the Irish solidarity movement in Scotland and Britain responded to bloody Sunday, and the early phases of the IRA armed struggle. The Anti-Internment League was collapsed into the Troops Out Movement (TOM), which by the mid 1970s was able to win a degree of support in the trade unions.

On May 1975 it initiated the ‘National Labour Movement Delegate Conference on the British Labour Movement and Ireland’, bringing 326 trade unionists together in London. Represented were 34 Trade Councils, 81Trade Union branches and 39 Labour Party branches. The main resolution proposed by Hackney Trades Council was overwhelmingly passed, stating: “The role of the British Army in Northern Ireland has been one of counter-insurgency, that is, suppressing the nationalist population, and not the proclaimed peacekeeping role. The British Army has been the principal agent in the denial of Irish self-determination. This conference therefore supports their immediate withdrawal from Northern Ireland.”

TOM soldiered on but was hamstrung by internal squabbles. In February 1976 I recall going to London to march on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday but also in solidarity with IRA hunger striker, Frank Stagg, nearing death in Wakefield prison. The march was a few thousand and at Shepherds Bush Green we had to defend it from an attack by the National Front.

What had changed? Firstly, the sectarian killings of Catholics mushroomed and Republicans were forced to retaliate. For people in Britain, those who had sided with the Civil Rights Movement, opposed internment and protested Bloody Sunday this seemed to negate the idea there was a national liberation struggle going on in the North. Armed struggle had fewer supporters.

Secondly, there was a conscious policy of using the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment (part time soldiers virtually entirely Protestant in composition) further reducing the number of British soldiers killed, thus reducing the impact of war in Britain.

Thirdly, the impact of the November 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, in which the IRA killed 21 members of the public, further isolated supporters for the struggle in the North.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act was used to intimidate the Irish community in Britain. But in truth, Eamonn McCann had been right when he warned the British left in 1971 that there was no “horde of proletarian Irish” in Britain ready to rise up in defence of civil rights in the North of Ireland.

The vast majority of the Irish in Britain came from the Republic and in the wake of Bloody Sunday the Irish government worked hard to isolate its population from what was happening in the North. In May 1974 Loyalist bombs in Dublin and Monaghan killed 34 people. The dominant view was that people in the South wanted nothing to do with the Troubles. That impacted on friends and family in Britain.

Clann na hÉireann had had a degree of support in the community but by the mid-1970s were actively hostile to TOM and its call for troops out. Provisional Sinn Fein was poorly organised and made little impact – supporters of the Provos tended to join the IRA and in Scotland provided logistical support and safe houses for IRA Volunteers in hiding or on a break for rest and recreation.

In London the James Callaghan government and his Northern Irish Secretary, Roy Mason, unleashed the highest level of state repression during the Troubles, removing political status for Republican prisoners, who were now to be treated as criminals, sanctioning torture and introducing non-jury courts.

On a more general level the post-1968 insurgency was on the wane and the Callaghan government introduced neo-liberal measures paving the way for Thatcher and shifting the intellectual debate rightwards.

In response to the removal of political status, Republican prisoners refused to wear prison uniform. They were beaten by guards and restricted to their cells in the H Blocks of Long Kesh and would in response launch the Dirty Protest, smearing their shit on the cell walls in support of their demand for political status.

By now I was a regular visitor to West Belfast and was aware that the Relatives Action Committees (RAC), grassroots groupings of the prisoner’s family and friends, were creating the basis of a new mass movement. In Glasgow I helped create a TOM branch and got RAC speakers over to talk about the campaign. We held a rally in the Woodside Halls with Bernadette McAliskey (formerly Devlin). It was a full house and a Loyalist attack was fought off.

The fact we had pulled it off gave us confidence to push further. It was decided to call a march in April 1979, in the final lap of a Westminster general election from Queens Park in the Southside of the city into the city centre. I was chief steward. Loyalists were there from the start and we formed up in the park behind the massive gates we had swung shut. As we set off down Victoria Road a hail of bricks and other missiles rained down on us and Loyalists broke through police ranks repeatedly to attack us. But we maintained order thanks to the James Connolly Republican Flute Band from Govan and a strong, tight, SWP contingent.

Having marched to Gorbals Cross we decided to halt having been advised we faced a further serious ambush in the city centre. But several hundreds of us had marched. It was a small but significant victory. Other marches followed including a significant one in Stirling.

During the first 1980 Hunger Strike we kept up activity. A rally with Eamonn McCann went ahead despite another Loyalist attack. When Bobby Sands commenced a second hunger strike in early 1981 I was in West Belfast, active there in the National H Block and Armagh Campaign (Armagh Jail was the women’s prison).

Bobby Sands was in a fight to the death with Margaret Thatcher. Before he died he was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and his election agent then held the seat. In an Irish election two prisoners were elected to Dail Eireann. But while support in the Republic was significant it never translated into protest strikes we had hoped to achieve.

It was also apparent Thatcher was not under pressure at home. TOM and the revolutionary left, with the support of a handful of left Labour figures, could bring a few thousand onto the streets, but no more.

Labour as the opposition party took a hard, hostile line. The shadow cabinet decided to send Don Concannon to visit Sands and put forward the position of the PLP: “Concannon informed Sands and the other hunger strikers that there was no possibility of the PLP supporting the hunger strikers. Concannon was not a popular figure with those on the far left of the party. Privately he was in favour of reunification. However, as an ex-soldier, he was doggedly opposed to the IRA.”

During the 1980s the decision of Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, to invite the Sinn Fein President to London began to shift things a bit. Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell continued to host republican leaders.

The 1989 Time to Go campaign, organised to mark the 20th anniversary of British troops being sent to Derry and Belfast, was a modest success, fronted by future Labour minister Clare Short. I was on its committee and we got a degree of trade union support and brought some 10,000 onto the streets of London. But by now it was clear hopes of shifting the popular mood in favour of troops out were a mirage.

In the final instalment of this series, I will address how the war in the North dissipated, and laid the basis for the current, vexed settlement, and ask what lessons can be drawn from our attempts at solidarity work from Britain.

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