Historian Chris Bambery recounts attempts to build solidarity with the civil rights and Republican movements in the North of Ireland, why the movement failed to reach the masses of the population, and how it still helped to change society.
In the previous instalments of this history, we have examined how those seeking to build solidarity with the civil rights and Republican movements in the north of Ireland reacted to the horrors of Bloody Sunday, internment and Hunger Strikes and the rise of the armed struggle. Now we will go on to examine the limitations faced by both Republicans in Ireland and the solidarity movement in Scotland and Britain.
The predicament of our movements can be explained with reference to a misguided analysis we had in the early days of the movement. In the early 1970’s our ambition was summed up in the slogan:“Turn Ireland into another Vietnam.” Since the January 1968 Tet offensive it had become clear the US could not win in Vietnam. The final defeat in 1975 was the biggest blow US imperialism has suffered.
A huge ant-war movement had grown across America, with state wide referendums registering support for US withdrawal. It penetrated into the armed forces with units refusing to fight and “fragging” (killing with a grenade) their own officers.
It also hit the US economy. The dollar, the global capitalist currency, went into crisis. The cost of the war was ruinous – military spending rose by a third – impacting on welfare spending and creating widespread discontent.
In the period between the introduction of internment in August 1971 and the first IRA-British truce in June 1972 it was possible to believe Britain was not in control of the situation. But that wasn’t the case. The biggest loss the army suffered was in 1972, 149 soldiers killed by the IRA. This wasn’t Vietnam. Nor could it be. The Catholic population was a third of the total population on 1.5 million, concentrated in areas like West Belfast, Derry and South Armagh which were increasingly vulnerable to the more sophisticated surveillance techniques which became available to the security forces.
In 1975 just 35 British soldiers were killed. The Ministry of Defence claimed more died in traffic accidents in West Germany.
The Republic of Ireland was no North Vietnam – the state controlled by Vietnamese Communists which could provide substantial assistance to guerillas in the South. The government in the Republic of Ireland had executed more Republicans than their Unionist counterparts in the North. As soon as they could they turned the screw on the Provisionals.
Within Britain the Troubles had a fraction of the impact Vietnam had in the USA. Half a million conscripts were not fighting there with tens of thousands refusing to be drafted. There were not hundreds of thousands in the streets nor did it impact politically, threatening to engulf Labour or Tory administrations as Vietnam did the Democratic Party. The economic costs to Britain were not negligible but they could be born, again in contrast to the USA.
In Britain, when people were asked what issues motivated them to vote Ireland scarcely registered. In the USA after 1968 it was the central issue.
With the tide not flowing with the Irish solidarity movement, it inevitably became fractious. Moralism emerged from frustration, with accusations that various actors were insufficiently committed or radical.
But the simple truth was that the Troubles did not overwhelm British society in the way Vietnam did in the USA. The British ruling class was not forced to pull out as the US did in Vietnam – an utter humiliation for the empire. The mounting sectarian killings meant people in Britain were alienated by events in the North. Few trade union leaders wanted to touch the issue and the Labour leadership was very hostile.
Marx had argued that revolution in Britain depended on revolution in Ireland, the overthrow of British colonial rule. But he also believed native British had to be won to supporting Irish freedom in order to create unity with the Irish working class, both in Ireland and in Britain where the diaspora was a significant section of the work force. In the mid to late nineteenth century they were to be found in every industrial and commercial city and town. Within those communities the Republican Fenians found mass support. Irish workers would play a key part in the New Unionism of the 1890s. Marx, Engels and Eleanor Marx also played a key role in creating a mass movement in support of Fenian prisoners.
But this perspective called for the emergence of a revolutionary workers’ movement that could take on the British state in the metropolitan centre of the empire. Working class militancy reached its peak in the first half of the 1970s. But by the early 1980s it was is sharp decline, leaving the Republican movement without a valuable potential ally.
Back in 1971 when I became politically engaged I wished for victory to the IRA, but also for other movements like ETA in the Basque Country, the ERP in Argentina (the Trotskyist guerrilla group wiped out attempting to wage rural guerrilla war on the Cuban model), Fatah in Palestine and of course the Vietnamese. Che Guevara wasn’t just a poster on my bedroom wall, he was a model to follow. The idea of armed anti-imperialist action appeared as a viable revolutionary strategy for many in my generation, following Che’s famous demand we: “create one, two, many Vietnams!”.
It was a flawed model. Vietnam was the end of a wave of successful anti-colonial, national liberation struggles. It was not to be repeated, certainly not in the North of Ireland. I would have to learn a hard lesson that Marx was correct when he said “the emancipation of working class is the act of the working class.” We would have to win workers to believe they could carry out their own freedom.
It is not power that corrupts, but lack of power. Ever since the abolition of the Unionist dominated northern parliament and the first IRA truce, it became increasingly difficult to build either a serious solidarity campaign or a broad based Troops Out Movement in Britain. Frustrations led to infighting and unhelpful mischaracterisations of the “Brit Left” which only paralysed efforts more.
But things were not much better in the Irish Republic after 1972. Yes the 1980 and 1981 Hunger Strikes saw a greater degree of solidarity and mass activity, including the election of two Republican prisoners as TDs, but it was not sufficient to deliver victory.
In the North, the idea of a twin strategy of ‘Armalite and ballot box’ led incrementally to a principally electoral strategy. The remodelling of Sinn Fein into a serious political party and the dropping of abstention from the Irish parliament was necessary before the Republicans could build a stable and sustained base of support. The dropping of the exhausted armed struggle in 1997 was crucial to the party’s rise.
1997 saw the first Sinn Fein TD elected in the Republic since 1957. This came a month before the IRA’s final ceasefire (the two prisoners elected in 1981 did not stand as Sinn Fein). In 2002 Sinn Fein won four seats but in 2007 dropped back to just one. The real breakthrough came in 2011 when it won 10 seats standing on an anti-austerity basis as the Republic was ravaged by the recession which followed the 2008 financial crash.
Despite the weakness of solidarity efforts in the Republic during the 1970s and 1980s, I do not recall the left in the Republic, in which I’d include the Provos, being attacked as being pro-imperialist.
The very term “Brit left” also needs clarifying. There were indeed some sections of the left who were hostile to Irish solidarity, sometimes out of a strategic commitment to the British state. If we are talking about the Labour Party, with a few exemptions already noted, the Communist Party and the Militant Tendency, fair game. But that could not include the IMG, the IS/SWP, Irish diaspora formations and a number of other smaller groups who did try, against the odds, to build a movement in opposition to British repression in Ireland.
Despite our failings, there are things we should be proud of from this era, some of which I played a small part in. The march and other activities around the H Blocks protest gave confidence to the Irish-Scottish community. In October 1979 the West of Scotland Band’s Alliance was formed. Jimmy Wright of the James Connolly Republican Flute Band was an outstanding figure. The new Alliance helped inject not just politics into the community but self-pride and confidence. That would grow and flourish.
Prior to that, the Irish in Scotland were alienated from much of public life. Most were ‘unskilled’ workers, with a small middle class; publicans, lawyers and teachers. They maintained identity against a hostile establishment through the Catholic Church and football clubs.
Now a confident community could step forward, helped by changes in the self-identity of Scotland itself – the rise of support for independence and the rejection of an identity based on Calvinism and Scotland’s vanguard role in Empire. Anti-Irish feeling has not disappeared, but it is now more subcultural.
At on 21 August 1979 when I turned up at Queens Park and was attacked by Loyalists with police looking on, and my jogging skills came into good effect, that all lay in the future. William Morris once said: “I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
Even as we fail, we can contribute to social progress. This is the troubled but still hopeful story of those years, and we shouldn’t settle for a less complex account.