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Unconditional but critical? Or the history of the Troubles according to the SWM. September 12, 2007

Posted by guestposter in Marxism, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, Socialist Workers' Party, The North.

From Ed Hayes – a guest post about the SWM/SWP

Like any left wing organisation operating in Ireland the SWM/SWP’s analysis of the northern conflict has undergone several changes and twists and turns, though they would probably deny this. A good overview of the original leadership’s views can be found on the archive of International Socialism documents featured on the BICO thread elsewhere on Cedar Lounge. Suffice to say the SWM emerged out of a milieu in the early 1970s when PD, the Young Socialists and several other tendencies were interacting with elements from the Official republican movement and the Provos. The early SWM was strongly ‘workerist’ in orientation and geared mainly towards rank and file trade union activity. However certainly by 1974 they seem to have taken the position that the Provos were in the vanguard of the struggle against British imperialism and therefore were entitled to ‘unconditional but critical’ support from socialists. What this meant in practice however, was often far from clear. Did it mean you thought you unconditionally supported the armed struggle but criticised the politics of the Provos or were critical of particular aspects of that armed struggle, or indeed the whole tactic itself? In my experience most members weren’t entirely sure themselves.

There was some involvement with the early IRSP in 1974-75, of which I really know little except for various myths and legends. Apparently the SWM had a vote on whether or not to join Costello’s new organisation and despite the eagerness of Kieran Allen and others it was stymied by the remaining workerists, led by a shop steward from Ballyfermot, who opposed involvement on the basis that the IRPs weren’t serious enough about trade unionism. In the 1980s as the INLA tore itself apart, again and again, many of us used to thank our lucky stars for that vote! But by the time I became involved, in 1984, the SWM had come out of long involvement in both the Socialist Labour party and the H-Block campaign. In that campaign their position had been to press for industrial action to save the hunger strikers lives, and to oppose calls for Fianna Fail and the Catholic Church to be the focus of lobbying for the H-Block men. In Dublin Corporation, Dublin Bus and Waterford Glass there were stoppages and walk outs organised in part by SWM members. But in real terms they and the rest of the far left were very minor players in a movement that will probably historically be seen as making modern Sinn Fein the force they are today. (Though of course PD and IRSP members were elected to Belfast city council in 1981, mainly because Sinn Fein didn’t stand).

In 1984 the official SWM position was still that socialists had to support those resisting imperialism in the north. This was the Provos, and much as we might not like it they were there because of the failures of the left in 1969-71. Our line was that had a serious revolutionary party existed then, the struggle could have been pushed forward in a different way (of course several revolutionary organisations that considered themselves serious had existed in 1969-71, but that’s another story). We took it for granted that it was Unionist bigotry and British repression that caused the war and that the Provos were an inevitable response to this oppression. Nobody ever really talked about the origins of civil rights and the politics of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the Officials in any real way. Only Eamonn MCann had been centrally active in that period in the north and he ploughed his own furrow to a certain extent. For some ideas about his thinking you can see the different tone he adopted in the various editions of War and an Irish Town (1974, 1979 and 1993). In the 1974 edition he is highly critical of the Provos, in the 1979 edition he argues that any socialist worth their salt has to back them and that ‘unconditional but critical’ is a cop-out and in 1993 he is very critical of them again. But McCann, while easily the best known public figure in the SWM, was not the mover ans shaker you might expect. Kieran Allen, Kevin Wingfield and Marnie Holoborow were much more central.

So the SWM essentially argued that problem in the north was British imperialism and its creation and backing of a sectarian state. That state offered nothing but discrimination and bigotry and could not be reformed. The violence occurring there was ultimately the fault of the British and we did not morally judge the tactics the IRA used, especially as most of those in society who condemned them supported far greater violence in the Falklands, El Salvador, Vietnam, Palestine etc. After Enniskillen for example the headline in the British Socialist Worker was ‘the bitter fruits of British rule’ and this was our bottom line; if you wanted peace then you should call for a British withdrawal, the IRA were a symptom, not the cause of the problem. It was a get out clause of course and often extremely abstract given the steady drip of killings in the 1980s. The Provo’s formal politics did not in theory matter to us; whether the O Bradaigh/MacStoifain leadership or Adams/McGuinness, the point was that they were taking on imperialism. We reckoned this applied everywhere; South Africa, Nicaragua, Iran, it wasn’t what you called yourself, it was whether or not you objectively opposed imperialism.

However to confuse matters further we did not actually support the use of armed struggle as a tactic. We were big on Trotsky’s ‘Against Individual Terrorism’ and stressed that the IRA could never ultimately defeat imperialism. The IRA might be brave and heroic (‘the finest people in this country’ I remember Kieran Allen stating at one meeting) but guerrilla struggle could not win in modern Ireland; we were not in Angola or Vietnam. A mass workers movement that opposed both states in Ireland, openly fighting for a workers republic was the only force that could really take on imperialism. The Provos would never lead this, because at base they were nationalists and would always search for some form of compromise with imperialism. We judged the armed struggle to be mistaken, not on individual incidents, but because it could not mobilise the popular forces necessary, either north or south, to succeed. Therefore we didn’t regard the Brighton bomb as ‘good’ and Enniskillen as ‘bad’, both were different sides of the same tactic. We didn’t offer the Provos advice on how to fight their war but we defended their right to fight it against those who condemned them, who we usually dismissed as hypocrites. Perhaps surprisingly to those who thought us Provo fellow travellers, the SWM did not believe the north was the be all and end all, especially by 1984. There was not a revolutionary situation in the six counties (though there may have been in 1969-71) and even if all the Catholics there supported the IRA they still could not win. There needed to be a workers movement in the south, which would probably emerge around bread and butter, day to day industrial struggles that would eventually give rise to a struggle that would challenge imperialism. If that movement also challenged the reactionary Catholic aspects of the south then there was even a possibility it might win some northern Protestant support.

The Protestant working class were not a labour aristocracy, ‘colons’ or a settler class but they did have certain marginal privileges that tied them to Unionism, which at base was a reactionary ideology. Therefore while they would have to be won to socialism in the struggle for a workers republic we did not believe that you shied away from condemning Unionism or exposing anti-Catholic bigotry. The UDA and UVF were counter -revolutionary supremacist groups and you could not be a socialist and a unionist. The examples of Jim Larkin and 1907 and the 1932 ODR strike were held up as times when workers had united but it was always stressed that unless sectarianism was challenged then this unity was always likely to collapse. Sectarianism was used by Britain to maintain its rule and it was Protestant sectarianism that was the problem. Looking back there was an amazing willingness to accept the Provo’s assurances that they were not sectarian and Socialist Worker used terms like ‘Brits’ and ‘Free State’ until the late 80s at least. The above is largely from memory but much of it was outlined in a small book by the British SWP’s Irish expert, a very dislikeable Scottish gent called Chris Bambery in Ireland’s Permanent Revolution (1987).

So that was the theory, at least. The reality was of course a bit more confused. The SWM had about one member in Belfast in the mid 80s and a small group in Derry. Most of us were southerners with no real experience of the north. There were some members who took ‘unconditional but critical’ to mean we did support the armed struggle and who cheered when the Provos killed British soldiers or cops. I cheered when they nearly got Thatcher (surely a good bomb?) but usually kept quite when they killed some off duty UDR man or killed civilians by mistake. I wasn’t alone. Some people were distinctly wary of the whole issue while others were actually close to seeing it as the be all and end all. One person I remember argued that at least the armed struggle ‘kept the pot boiling’ and allowed for a certain instability in Irish politics. Also remember at this time Sinn Fein were doing a good job of talking like a national liberation movement. Every AP/RN had stuff on South Africa, Palestine, Nicaragua etc (much more so I think than the Irish People for instance). So a few young SWM members who joined during stuff like the Reagan visit eventually went off and joined Sinn Fein, because they offered them almost constant street politics as opposed to the SWM’s theorising. The ‘unconditional’ support for the Provos could lead to people being amazingly blasé about death and destruction ‘that’s what happens in wars’ etc and there was little empathy with the victims of republican violence in the north. We never understood what the IRA’s campaign was doing in terms of destroying inter-communal relations (such as they were). Yet we thought somewhere down the line workers would still unite. For most of us our first experience of the north was going up to sell papers at the August anti-internment march in Belfast or the Bloody Sunday commemoration demo in Derry. It was grim and a bad time, though we often sold a lot of papers to people at these events.

The SWM spent a lot of time arguing that the southern labour movement had to take on board the north and oppose repression there and that was the line that we carried into anti-extradition campaigns etc. Within these campaigns the SWM argued for orientation on the unions and opposing looking to Fianna Fail’s ‘grass roots.’ Kieran Allen had written an important article arguing that the south was not a neo-colony of Britain but an independent capitalist state and the southern bourgeoisie had no objective interest in opposing partition. Fianna Fail was not in any way republican or potentially progressive. This is what usually marked us out in republican led campaigns; they’d be over the moon that Councillor Richard Greene, Nora Comisky or Willie O’Dea (yes!) had spoken out against extradition, which was supposed to presage some mass conversion by Fianna Fail to ‘Brits out’ when one of us would stand up and say it was all a front and that Fianna Fail wanted to crush the Provos as much as Thatcher did. Instead we should lobby the trades council to get their banner on the next anti-extradition demo….the grand theory was of course that because we were too small to have a real influence, participation in these campaigns offered an opportunity to connect with the ‘ones and twos’ who were possibly looking for a socialist alternative to republicanism. Significantly we did not consider ourselves socialist republicans, or any kind of republican; we used that term as interchangeable with nationalism. Culturally rebel songs were frowned on and SWM socials would usually feature fairly standard American and British labour songs (‘which side are you on’ etc). Some people did sing rebel songs of course but it was discouraged. Similarly nobody spoke Irish and there was absolutely no interest in it. There were no practicing Catholics as far as I can remember, which of course was a reflection of how marginal we were! Anti-clericalism was a given.

There was really very little knowledge of Loyalism, the Protestant working class, the SDLP or day to day life in the north but we could of course explain most of the above with a few slogans. Like so much on the far left you were defined by your competitors or opponents. Compared to People’s Democracy and the League for a Workers Republic we actually sounded quite critical of the Provos. Both those groups orientated almost completely on the republican movement and still thought the north was where it was at (though I only saw Paddy Healy of the LWR once and they may have been almost gone by 1984). PD criticised the SWM as ‘economists’ and didn’t like us very much. After the hunger strikes a section of PD had actually joined Sinn Fein in order to push it further leftwards. Ann Speed, a fella called Meehan (who had a brother who stayed in PD) and some others were supposed to be entryists of some sort. I’ll leave others to judge whether they changed Sinn Fein or the Provos changed them. The funny thing was that even though the ex-PD had only been in the Provos a wet weekend, they acted like they were veterans of the Curragh in the 1940s and were really smug and arrogant towards the far left. In contrast the actual Provos were usually not hostile. Some of them were a bit bemused by the array of literature they would be offered outside an Ard Fheis, while others smiled cynically, but very rarely would someone tell you to ‘fuck off.’ Mostly they would stop and talk and generally act civilly. I later realised why so many of the ones whose faces I knew were friendly but reserved and rarely offered strong opinions on anything. Loads of them were in the IRA and several were later caught on robberies or on various missions in Britain. It seems to me that being a young SF member in the south in the 1980s was still only sort of an apprenticeship for the ‘army.’ So the SWM were a fairly harmless diversion to them and unless we were going to actually really annoy them there was nothing to be lost in saying hello to us. Actually Gerry Adams had a good tactic for dealing with far left critics at meetings. He cultivated this avuncular thing where he would say hello and sometimes buy a paper. Then he puffed his pipe while someone denounced the Provo pan-nationalist strategy before replying by thanking the ‘comrade from the League for a Revolutionary Socialist Republic (deliberately making up a mad lefty title, well an even madder one than whoever the speaker actually belonged to) for advising the people of the north how to fight the war, but they were getting on ok without them etc.’ Cue loads of laughing and big rounds of applause.

If PD and the LWR were one benchmark than the CPI and Militant were the others. The CPI offered critical support to Fianna Fail and saw Haughey as potentially progressive, especially in contrast to the Coalition government. They opposed extradition, Section 31 and plastic bullets and still actually had Protestant members in the north. But the softness for Fianna Fail and of course their support for the Eastern Bloc meant we never really had much dealings with them. Militant, in retrospect I think had a fairly sensible position, stressing workers unity and being active in the Labour and Trade Union Group, in both communities. (Actually I remember one of their comrades was murdered by the UVF about 1986). They also opposed repression however. Crucially they simply called on the Provos to stop, which we would never do. But we saw them as making all sorts of concessions to Unionism, especially the ‘federation of Ireland and Britain’ idea which even today galls me. Most of the Irish working class spent a fairly long time trying top get away from a federation with Britain! I also disliked Militant however because I remember at one meeting someone from the SWM was stoically making the point that workers unity would not last without clear anti-imperialist politics, because after all hadn’t the great days of the ODR riots been followed just three years later by the 1935 sectarian pogroms? Peter Hadden sneered back that the speaker was obviously not very well read because there were no sectarian killings in Belfast between 1922 and 1969. Well I went home and looked up my history books and lo and behold, there was a spot of unpleasant bother in 1935. Never liked Hadden since. As for the WP, well we just thought they were absolutely pro-imperialist and had very little contact with them anyway. I know that was very simplistic but we just went by their calls to support the RUC and their view of the Provos as the root of all evil. Reading recent discussions on this site I realised that I’d never actually heard of several of the feuds etc. There were also recurring rumours that the WP in the north were involved with the cops and Loyalists in some way. Funnily enough though we called for a vote for them in southern general elections!

Now the SWP in Britain were a slightly different story and loads of them thought the Provos were the bee’s knees in the 80s. Think of a more extreme version of Ken Livingstone. Sinn Fein speakers used to get great ovations for saying absolutely nothing at Marxism in London every year. When I went there I sounded like I was in Militant compared to many members. This also began to change in the late 1980s. Aside from Bambery their big Irish experts were Pat Stack, (from Cork I think) and basically anyone else with an Irish surname. There were quite a few Irish born and second generation Paddies in the SWP and I believe the joke in the 1970s was that it was largely an organisation composed of Catholics and Jews! Their line on the north did get them into trouble occasionally but many people in Britain did not really give a shite about Ireland and weren’t too troubled if you were selling a paper that said ‘troops out’ on the cover. The obvious exception was after IRA bombs.

As far as I know in the early 1990s the SWM’s line went under a big revision as Kieran Allen discovered after 20 years that the Provo’s armed struggle was actually counter productive (that was not the line in the 80s and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) and was not doing a great deal to advance the workers cause at all. I think this position was eventually adopted about five minutes before the Provos declared their ceasefire in 1994. For a while the SWM seemed to moving towards a Militant type position but have perhaps changed again. I don’t know. Personally these days I think the whole thing was a tragic mess, the war in the north that is, not the SWM. If we thought the armed struggle was the wrong tactic then we should have simply called on them to stop using it. They wouldn’t have listened of course but it would have at least been clear what we meant.

Ed Hayes


1. splinteredsunrise - September 12, 2007

Great post.

I would have been of a slightly earlier vintage, going back to the SLP days, but things don’t change all that much. I do remember the Boss’s old chestnut about how there were no good and bad bombs – to say that was “moralism”. Funny, most Provos with brains would have disagreed. Then there was the line on voting SF, which I didn’t agree with in terms of the south and even Peoples Democracy abandoned 10 years before the SWM. The weird thing is though that Kieran always struck me as very strongly anti-republican. But yes, he tied himself in knots over that – always saying the armed struggle was counterproductive, but refusing to call for an end to it, which I would have thought was the logical conclusion.

What you say about the dislocation from Irish culture rings some bells. There was a lot of Gaelic chauvinism in Sinn Féin, but the SWM seemed to me to have replaced it with, well, British chauvinism. Most Irish culture was seen as backward, and attitudes to the language ranged from the indifferent to the hostile. I once suggested running an Irish column in the paper, even as a token gesture, and got stared at like I was insane. Even the CPI did better, and they were all Belfast Prods. If anybody followed sport, it was always soccer and never Gaelic. And yes, nobody was Catholic.

A lot of the leading personnel are the same of course. People like Trench and Kerrigan went their various ways, and we ended up with the regime of Democratic Kieranism. He’s a talented bloke, maybe the most outstanding in the group, but I don’t see the qualities that would justify him being leader for 30-odd years, and at his age he could carry on another 20 years or more.

It is a bit depressing. You spend years outside Ireland and when you come back all the radical groups are led by the same people, more or less.

As far as the founding of the IRSP goes, I believe Bernie and the Derry group were keen to get PD involved, but PD were none too keen on Costello. The SWM were a lot more enthusiastic, but Costello was none too keen on them. Eamo dickered around with joining, but never got round to it.

The LWR existed at least till about 89-90. They tried to orient to RSF before giving that up as a bad job.


2. Garibaldy - September 12, 2007

Cheers for that Ed. Utterly fascinating. There’s one thing I’d like developed a bit more, and it’s something that applies to a lot of the leftist groups not only in Ireland but also in GB. That is the issue of involvement in violence. If opposing Britain through violence was the right way (as argued at great length by say the CPI ML in the document recently posted) but the Provos were going about it the wrong way, why did these groups never get involved themselves? If the Provos were right and a national liberation movement, why not get involved with them? I’ve never really seen this adequately explained.


3. Ciarán - September 12, 2007

Quick question. If the protestant working class had privileges over the catholic working class, regardless of how marginal they may have been, then wouldn’t that mean that there was indeed a labour aristocracy?


4. franklittle - September 12, 2007

“they’d be over the moon that Councillor Richard Greene, Nora Comisky or Willie O’Dea (yes!) had spoken out against extradition, which was supposed to presage some mass conversion by Fianna Fail to ‘Brits out’”

I think a lot of them are still waiting. There seems to be a deeply cherished myth among Northern republicans that all Fianna Fáil needs is a little push and it will jump on an anti-partitionist convoy to smash the border. While there is quite an instinctive nationallist/republican sympathy among a lot of grassroots Fianna Fáilers, there’s really nothing there beyond rhetoric. Fianna Fáil is about protecting its position of power in the South. Unification could unleash forces of one sort or another that put that under threat.

Sinn Féin people in the South seemed much more able to grasp that than their Northern chums.


5. Ed Hayes - September 12, 2007

Last comment first; yes, some southern Shinners used to say they agreed with the analysis that it wasn’t worth pursuing the ‘grassroots of FF’ for support in campaigns but that Gerry A and the northern leadership were insistent that that was the way to go.

Second last; There was supposedly some difference between ‘marginal’ privilages and the full blown labour aristocracy. An example would be that in the 1980s many white workers in South Africa could have servants and swimming pools such was their position in society but that was clearly not the case for Protestant workers in the north. Their priviliges were more about ability to gain employment in certain industries historicially closed to Catholics.

First question; Yes there was an obvious problem, if you supported them, critically or not, why not join them? We resorted to the argument about the failure of ‘individual terrorism’ on this, not that we ever called the IRA terrorists in public. But it was often put to us that we wanted the best of both worlds, support for the Provos with one of the risks. PD apperantly flirted with the idea of an armed wing (a new ICA I think) in the late 1970s, though that may have been an SWM myth!


6. Ed Hayes - September 12, 2007

The above should obviously read ‘none of the risks.’


7. Ed Hayes - September 12, 2007

Below is a link to a critique of the SWM by Tom Crean (not the Artic explorer I presume) of the Socialist Party. Theres a section on the SWM’s attitude to the Provos which is relevent and while I don’t agree with all of it does contain some quotes that give a flavour of changing interpretations. I’m afraid I don’t have any old papers or documents to scan for ye.



8. Ed Hayes - September 12, 2007

Also, before you all get bored of this, I found this discussion from New Left Review in 1969. It is very interesting because Eamonn McCann is arguing here that the civil rights movement, despite their best efforts, is making sectarianism worse. This is not the position he would argue in later years, but at the time I have heard he and Bernadette Devlin and others were in favour of preventing the AOH, Nationalist Party and other nationalist politicians from speaking at civil rights meetings, because this gave CR a clearly Catholic flavour. The mainstram of NICRA opposed them as ultra left.



9. Garibaldy - September 12, 2007

Cheers for the answer Ed, and the links. Mc Cann has been particularly guilty of being all over the shop on this issue. Interesting to see that analysis as the risk of increasing sectarianism was I think one of the reasons the mainstream of NICRA opposed the march to Derry that produced Burntollet. On Splintered Sunrise’s point on Mc Cann, the book Deadly Divisions says he never joined the IRSP as they wanted first refusal on his journalism.


10. Phil - September 12, 2007

Gerry Adams had a good tactic for dealing with far left critics at meetings

Back in 1989 the third Socialist Conference had a surprise guest address the closing plenary – our old mate Gerry. It was the usual line for British (and, apparently, ROI) consumption – “thanks for the unconditional support which is all you have any right to offer us, keep it coming, three cheers for us”.

I only remember one actual line, which I think I misunderstood at the time. Quote: “And don’t let’s get hung up on the hook of supporting the IRA. If you do support the IRA, good! Well done! But that’s not the issue.” All I noticed at the time was the association between ‘support the IRA’ and ‘good’, and as a good Marxist I was appropriately outraged. But I wonder now if there was a touch of sarcasm – will all you armchair terrorists shut up about the bloody IRA, I get enough of that at home…

Nothing to do with the SWP, mind you – the Socialist Society organised the Soc Conf, together with the Campaign Group. I think the CG’s fingerprints were on the invitation to Adams – I certainly didn’t know anything about it until the day, and I was Chair of the Soc Soc at the time.


11. WorldbyStorm - September 12, 2007

One point coming through loud and clear is how divorced from the broader culture the SWM/SWP was and perhaps is. And it’s not the only party on the further left in that position.

Which reminds me of one day back in the 80s when I was off to some big WP conference or it might have been an Ard Fheis. My father who would have been broadly sympathetic to the party asked me where I was going. When I told him he shook his head in disbelief, “You know what’s on today, do you?”. I replied that I didn’t. “Dublin are playing at Croke Park,” he said, “You can bet Haughey and Ahern and all of FF and much of FG will be there while De Rossa and Mac Giolla are stuck in the RDS and you wonder why you get four per cent of the vote”. Now, cheap shot perhaps, but he wasn’t far wrong, and a left has to actually be part of the peoples experience.


12. franklittle - September 13, 2007

Isn’t there some story that when Seán MacBride was Chief of Staff of the IRA there was a big meeting of IRA leaders in Dublin the same day as an All-Ireland Galway were playing in. According to the poet Mairtin O Cadhain, MacBride was astonished when the Galway IRA got p to leave the meeting to go see the match causing him, much like your father, to wonder whether MacBride really understood the Irish.


13. Mick Hall - September 13, 2007

Interesting piece from Ed, I could never get my head around ‘unconditional but critical’ support from socialists,” it is absolute rubbish.

The problem with the SWP [like much of the left] is they have refuse to draw the correct conclusions from their own weaknesses. The fact is they are not large enough to plough their own furrow, they understand this hence all those Front organization that almost always whither on the vine. Yet they refuse to draw the only logical conclusion which is to either work towards a new Left Party with which they would merge, or at the very least attempt to form an electoral United Front of the Left.

Instead they go their own happy way clinging limpet like to industrial struggles and international conflicts and in the process they at times have become hand maidens of some very unsavory individuals.


14. WorldbyStorm - September 13, 2007

fl, I think that story is recounted in the R Ó B biog. A mine of info, believe you me.

Mick, that’s a very good point indeed that you make in the last paragraph.


15. Andy Newman - September 14, 2007

This is a really interesting article – thanks Ed,

From my observation, there is a peculiarity of the SWP’s internal method which leads to vague formulatioons that could mean anything being interpreted by comrade in diffferent ways.

So “unconditional but critical” or “united front of a special type”, or Cliff style Marx-babble like “X is the dialectical flip side of Y” could be interreted in a number of different ways.

But with Cliff’s view to theory was over-determined by organisational considerations. So unless there was a factional interest for the leadership in pursuing a debate to a conclusion, it was better to find a formulation that keeps everyone on board. This also feeds into the curious franchise style orgaisation of the SWP, where people can pretty much do what they want in their own campigns as long as they don’t openly conflict with the current perspectives of the CC.

So in the British SWP “unconditional but critical” ranged from meaning uncritical support for the IRA, to not supporting them at all.

I remember more than once in the late 1980s speaking from the floor in public meetings addressed by Ken Livingston, or even SWP public meetings, where I was mistaken for a SF member becasue of what I said. At my end of the SWP’s range of opinion the only problem with the IRA was they could never kill enough Brit soldiers to win. At the other end of the range of opinion people would say that the IRA were murderers and we didn’t support them” “we don’t support the IRA, we support the SWM”

Now whether the armed struggle was productive within Ireland, I am not so presumptive to offer an opinion. You are there and I am not. But I remain convinced that on ballance the armed struggle did have a positive effect on British politics – whether other strategies could have produced the same or better effect we will never know.


16. Ciarán - September 14, 2007

Ed: Also, before you all get bored of this, I found this discussion from New Left Review in 1969. It is very interesting because Eamonn McCann is arguing here that the civil rights movement, despite their best efforts, is making sectarianism worse.

The problem was much broader and much more fundamental than the presence of the AOH at civil rights meetings. Bernadette Devlin firmly hit the nail on the head when she said that obviously the only way a catholic could get a house or a job was at the expense of a protestant, which of course would lead to an increase in sectarian feeling.

Now this quandary for the CRA illustrated quite clearly the nature of the Orange state, in which you had a large minority that was marginalised and discriminated against at every level, and any time this community dared ask for something as outrageous as equality, it drove unionism further to the right, led to ever increasing divisions amongst the working class, and on several occasions led to pogroms (on two occasions just a few years after incidents of working class unity still idolised by the left, those being the 1907 and 1932 strikes). And then naturally in ’69 the place exploded.


17. Ciarán - September 14, 2007

Ed: Below is a link to a critique of the SWM by Tom Crean (not the Artic explorer I presume) of the Socialist Party…

I had to have a laugh at this piece from the SP’s introduction:

It is not our normal practice to respond at such length to arguments raised by what in reality is an organisation with little weight within the working class.

Best case ever of the pot calling the kettle black?


18. Andy Newman - September 14, 2007

“It is not our normal practice to respond at such length to arguments raised by what in reality is an organisation with little weight within the working class.”

At east they mention the SWP by name.

In the 1980 edition of “The Marxist Theory of the State” By Ted Grant, a reprint of his repsonse to Cliff from their days in the RCP during the late 1940s, the introduction opens with:

“Why has the ‘Militant’ decided to republish Ted Grant’s polemic against the founder of an unimportnat sect on the fringes of the labour movement 30 years after it was written?”

They then go on to never answer that question, never refer to the SWP, and don’t even refer in the endnotes to which book or article by Cliff it is refuting.


19. ejh - September 14, 2007

<a left has to actually be part of the people’s experience

So it does, but they can’t just bring that about: if very few working-class people find that their life-experience seriously interests them in leftwing ideas then it doesn’t matter what precisely those ideas are, or how they’re packaged, or whether the people who propound them go to the match. You’re shouting into the void no matter what paper you’re selling.

I don’t think there’s any way of creating some attractive left line, or organisation, which will somehow get it right this time: and when there’s precious little working-class self-consciousness to speak of, which is the case in Western Europe now, there’s more to be lost than gained in beating yourself (or others) up about it. Not all times are propitious, as these are not: Marx was only able to write Capital, after all, because for twenty years he had, politically, nothing to do.

What’s also unlikely to help is what is actually likely to happen, which is a prolonged period of navel-gazing, shirt-shredding and mutual recrimination on the Left, the only likely effect of which will be to make that Left a thoroughly unpleasant place for anybody new to be. Easy to say, of course: harder to do: people have all sorts of gripes and grudges with one another, some legitimate and some less legitimate, and it’s probably only when you’re as far from the action as I am that you can keep out of that. But its not a process of discussion or even of clarification: it’s mutual sectarianism and score-settling, most of the time, which point is, I think, established by its tone. Fraternal, it is not.

What should happen is, of course, what is least likely to happen: that rather than sitting around like the guys in the pen from Reservoir Dogs, all blaming one another, we should just take a stretch: take a walk, let some time pass, chat a little, see what happens, see how things are changing around us and what that means for old ideas. Leave the navel-examination and the recitation of past sins for the autobiographies.

But I guess we won’t.


20. Joe - September 17, 2007

Re Ciarán’s post no. 16.
How did Bernadette Devlin hit the nail on the head with that statement? It certainly was true to some extent but clearly not as black and white as that. Some pretty minimal reforms could and should have been put in place to rectify these discriminatory practices.
You seem to be sneering at the Left’s championing of the examples of workers unity of 1907 and 1932. But surely that’s what the left should be doing – telling and showing people that it doesn’t have to be like this (i.e. the discrimination, the disgusting division along sectarian lines). And now the left should be promoting mini-1907s like the recent stoppages (a year or two back now) against threats to postal workers.


21. Ciarán - September 18, 2007

Bernadette hit the nail on the head because she acknowledged that it was impossible for the NICRA to avoid the issue of sectarianism, while more reformist elements like the NILP and CPI (or CPNI as it was then) believed that it was simply the radicalism of the NICRA that was causing the problem.

I do sneer at the way the far left idolise the events of 1907 and 1932 but refuse to acknowledge the way in which the Orange card was played to divide workers, and their refusal to recognise that rallying the working class on economist or bread and butter issues will not achieve any long-term class unity and that the question of what fundamentally divides workers needs to be addressed if one is truly serious about workers’ unity. Sectarianism is not something simply created by the DUP and Sinn Féin to get voted into power by their ‘own’ communities every time an election comes along. This attitude among some on the far left leads to an argument that no issue can be brought up that might rock the boat, so raising the issues of imperialism, Britain’s role in Ireland, and the continued discrimination against catholics at every level of the statelet somehow becomes sectarian itself in the eyes of these ‘leftists’.


22. ejh - September 18, 2007

far left idolise the events of 1907 and 1932 but refuse to acknowledge the way in which the Orange card was played to divide workers

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a far-left account of these events which didn’t “acknowledge the way in which the Orange card was played”. Do you have any in mind?


23. Joe - September 18, 2007

Sorry Ciarán. I would describe myself as left whatever about far left. But I would always “acknowledge the way in which the Orange card was played” (and continues to be played) “to divide workers” – and the vast majority of leftists I know would acknowledge that too. However I do indeed refuse “to recognise that rallying the working class on economist or bread and butter issues will not achieve any long-term class unity”. In my view, just such painstaking work on bread and butter issues is the only way that genuine class unity can be developed. And given the history and depth of division in the North, that work will take generations.
The united working class actions of 1907 and 1932 are worth celebrating in that regard. They give us hope and, with regard to the North, we need all the hope we can get. Read John Gray’s book on 1907 and Paddy Devlin’s on 1932 (Yes We have no bananas) once every few years. They cheer me up anyway.


24. Ciarán - September 18, 2007

I apologise for the confusion but I have come across people who go on and on about events of this kind but don’t mention how these kinds of things ended (funnily enough these same people would never consider the role of Protestants in Republican Congress or in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War as worth mentioning). I never meant to throw you in what that lot so again I apologise for that. However I don’t accept that working class unity can be achieved by focusing on a gas-and-water agenda and trying to paper over what has the workers divided.

I haven’t read Devlin’s book but I have read Gray’s. It’s a great read, though depressing when you start to see everything unravelling around Larkin and co.’s heads.


25. Joe - September 19, 2007

Fair enough Ciarán. No need to apologise. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t see eye to eye on what has the workers divided in the North. But that’s for another day. Unfortunately the good stories of Prods and Catholics standing together (1798, 1907 and 1932) do usually end up with them divided again pretty quickly. It sure won’t be easy to change that pattern after all we’ve been through in the last 40 years.
It’s a 100 years since 1907 and Dublin City Libraries are running a series of free lunchtime lectures in Dublin City Hall in October. SIPTU are sponsoring. The talks are on Tuesdays 2, 9, 16, 23 and 30 Oct from 1.10pm to 1.45pm. ALL ABOUT THE BELFAST DOCKERS STRIKE OF 1907. Speakers include John Gray and Henry Patterson.
More info from 01 2222204 or 01 6744996. I’m sure it’s all on the City Council website but I’m not IT savvy enough to link. I got the info from a leaflet in my local library in Dublin. LET’S CELEBRATE WORKERS UNITY IN 1907!


26. Ed Hayes - September 19, 2007

The above discussion is very similar to many I heard between the SWM and Militant during the 80s. But relating back to the civil rights question it raises the problem; if challenging discrimination makes sectarianism worse what do you do? The SWM’s view and that of the Provos in the 70s was that civil rights were impossible in a sectarian state. But what if they were possible? Northern Ireland clearly is reformable; it has been substantially reformed. Whats more and this is a problematic area, between 1969 and 1970 many of the CR movements demands, such as disbandment of the Specials, disarming of the RUC, reform of local govt voting etc were met.


27. Joe - September 19, 2007

It’s certainly not a new discussion Ed. That’s the tragedy of 69/70. Some reforms were put in place, the NICRA activists deserve great credit for that. But clearly there were underlying problems which meant that the place was a tinderbox which tragically went up with a bang. And many a debate has been had again and again on the whys and wherefores of that.


28. The Left Archive: “Socialists, Republicanism and the Armed Struggle” from the Socialist Workers’ Movement c. 1991. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - May 19, 2008

[…] and the Armed Struggle. To some degree this serves as a backdrop to the piece by Ed Hayes here, from last September on the SWM/SWP and the […]


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