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Left Archive: Ireland – Rising in the North, Big Flame, 1975 March 14, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Big Flame (UK), Irish Left Online Document Archive.
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To download the accompanying document please click on the link: BIG FLAME

When researching the document, which was donated by a reader – for which many thanks, I discovered that it was already scanned and online, albeit in three parts, at this Big Flame site, along with what appears to be the near totality of their documentation. But given that I did scan it, and information is free, it seems like an appropriate addition to the Archive regardless – wbs.

This is a fascinating document issued by Big Flame, the group originally based in Liverpool and founded in 1970. Big Flame was in intent closest to the Italian Lotta Continua group, and during an eclectic history between 1970 1984 attracted a varied range of support, even to the extent of seeing an anarchist grouping merge with it.

The history of Big Flame can be found here, and John Sullivan gave an overview of the organisation here. But a flavour of their approach is given by the frontispiece:

We are a Marxist organisation; but we are not Maoists, Stalinists or Trotskyists. We see ourselves as inheriting a revolutionary Marxist tradition which includes many revolutionaries, but we see their writings as the collective voice of the particular period of class struggle that they were involved in. It’s a tradition which also includes the revolutionary actions of working class people throughout history.

Big Flame groups exist in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and London. We are active in hospitals, car and other factories; among housewives, tenants and students. We also work in the Troops Out Movement and Chile Solidarity Campaign. Nationally, our work is co-ordinated through Waged Workplace, Education, Women’s and Ireland Commissions, and overall by a National Committee

As the frontispiece also notes:

Big Flame is a revolutionary socialist organisation. We are publishing this pamphlet on Ireland because we hope it is of use to the Irish revolution. The class struggle being fought in Ireland is of absolute importance of the Irish working class, for the English working class and for working class power everywhere. Yet it is hugely misunderstood, even on the left here. We must understand the importance and content of that struggle. The struggle of our brothers and sisters in the Catholic ghettoes of the Six Counties of Ireland occupied by our bosses’ army is our struggle too.

We hope that this pamphlet helps understanding of the mass struggle of the Irish working class and helps in building the Troops Out Movement which is currently the focus of Big Flame’s activity around Ireland. The TOM is the main weapon we have. That is why we have worked with it since its foundation. We work in the interests of the Irish struggle. Our struggle is in common.

The document is of particular interest since it seeks to give an overview of the conflict. Across 32 printed pages it deals with a variety of issues, ‘A Question of Class’, ‘Loyalism and the Orange Order’, ‘The Secret War’ and includes interviews with a variety of individuals. These include interviews with nationalist women and men in the North and a member of a relief committee.

In terms of positioning the document argues…

…we in Big Flame say that the important organisations in Ireland – the organisations from which will come any revolutionary movement – are the Provisional Republican movement, the People’s Democracy and the IRSP. We say this because these are the three main organisations that have shown any understanding of the Northern struggle and its leading role in the Irish revolution.

It dismisses both the Socialist Workers Movement and the Official Republican Movement, though conceding that the latter ‘could play a role in the immediate defence of the Republican areas’.

The IRSP it posits has been insufficiently clear that it considers the national struggle to be paramount.

In relation to the Provisionals it notes:

Whether the left-wing in and around the Provisionals can emerge as the conscious and organised vanguard of the Irish working class, that remains to be seen. At some time it will require a clear break with the petit-bourgeois tendencies in the movement. But for the time being – with the prospect of civil war – there seems little chance that this clear break will happen.

And it makes an interesting claim when it suggests that:

Recently an armed group who follow the political line of People’s Democracy, the Revolutionary Citizen’s Army, has been formed. The effect this could have on PD’s role in the struggle could be significant.

Another interesting assertion is the following:

The Officials were then, and still are, dominated by members of the Irish Communist Party.

In sum a useful document that indicates at least some of the perspectives from the United Kingdom during the mid-1970s.

Comments»

1. Starkadder - March 15, 2011

Interesting fact- the book “Policing Pop” by
Martin Cloonan and Reebee Garofalo notes that
several members of the 80s band Latin Quarter
used to be Big Flame members.

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2. EamonnCork - March 15, 2011

Wonderful band Latin Quarter, “Radio Africa,” “America for beginners,” “no rope as long as time.”
Big Flame as far as I know were named after a TV play by the great Jim Allen who went on to write the wonderful screenplays for Ken Loach’s Raining Stones and Hidden Agenda.
The play, a what if piece about a dockers strike in Liverpool, was one of those legendary TV pieces which is known mainly by reputation because it’s not on DVD and will never be shown again on telly.
But it’s actually on Youtube now along with other Loach stuff you can’t see anywhere else like Questions of Leadership, censored by the BBC at the time, a documentary about the somewhat topical subject of trade union leaders selling out their members in the name of ‘realism’ from the eighties. And also Looks and Smiles, from a novel by Barry Hines who also wrote Kes, which is a terrific piece about early eighties Britain in which one of the protagonists ends up serving with the British Army in the North. There’s a treasure trove there. And it’s good to be able to report that The Big Flame is very good, it’s done in that same verite style as Cathy Come Home.
Now if someone could only unearth Days of Hope, the Loach series from the mid seventies which at the time was hailed as one of the finest things ever to be made for TV but has never been rerun.

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3. kbranno - March 15, 2011

Who were the Revolutionary Citizens Army mentioned as an armed wing of Peoples’ Democracy. I’ve never heard of them before – did they ever ‘do’ anything or was it’s members just assimilated into the Provos/Sticks?

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4. Jim Monaghan - March 15, 2011

It was believed that there was a group of militants who accepted the political views of PD. They believed that British Imperialism was contemplating a Rhodesian solution to the problems in the North. Given the loyalist alliance around Craig, it was felt that there was a real possibility of an extended attack on Nationalist areas similar to that on Bombay St. but on a much larger scale.The RCA was a purely defensive organisation as far as I know.
PD produced a pamphlet called “The Fascist takeover” and a parallel group the revolutionary Marxist Group later Movement for a Socialist Republic called their similar analysis the Loyalist Takeover.
While these fears went unrealised, a reading of the contemporary press will confirm that many serious thinkers across the political spectrum felt that a Rhodesian type effort by Loyalism and British Imperialism was to a degree considered.
Where did these people go? I do not know where the members of the RCA went.
When PD dropped an armageddon type scenario and published a new direction called “Mass action vs militarism” those who opposed it formed a group called the Red Republican Party. I gather these people later joined the IRSP.

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Mark P - March 15, 2011

Thanks Jim. You beat me to it and have a much better understanding of the dynamics of these groups.

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5. Mark P - March 15, 2011

I’ve never heard of that name, but People’s Democracy did have a pro-militarist wing in the mid 1970s, which split away to form the Red Republican Party and then, I believe, mostly ended up in the IRSP.

My best guess is that there is a connection.

PD was a very politically volatile organisation and took quite a range of forms and positions between 1968 and its merger with the Movement for a Socialist Republic in 1976. The MSR was the Irish section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International and had itself already gone through a number of incarnations – some USFI supporters had been connected to the Saor Eire Action Group before the MSR was founded, for instance.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that PD was politically reorienting itself in the mid-1970s. People with a more militarist bent became prominent and either a military wing was planned or it was actually set up. But there was an internal shift before any campaign got going and the militarists were marginalised. Supporters of a military strategy left to set up the RRP and then disappeared into the IRSP. Meanwhile, those people still in PD moved to merge with the MSR, which also had little truck with the idea of military adventures by this stage.

That last paragraph is merely surmise, however. Perhaps someone who was around back then can clarify things.

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6. Alan MacSimoin - March 16, 2011

In 1978 a Belfast PD member, Denis Murphy, was found guilty of possessing arms. He told the court, and I think the judge accepted this, that the guns were only for defence in the event of a loyalist attack.

During the bloodiest years of sectarianism some on the republican left (especially those living in the more vulnerable nationalist areas of Belfast) massively overestimated the possibility of loyalism transforming itself into a truly fascist movement.

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Jim Monaghan - March 16, 2011

Loyalism and fascism have a lot in common. The only difference is that the British state decided that a Rhodesian type response to the republican challenge was not needed.
If say the National Front in Britain had developed, then loyalism would have easily morphed into a component

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Mark P - March 16, 2011

“The only difference…”

Really, Jim? The only difference?

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7. Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen (und nicht so radikalen) Linken « Entdinglichung - March 16, 2011

[…] * Big Flame: Rising in the North […]

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8. Captain Rock - March 16, 2011

Jim, wise the fuck up. That’s the type of logic that had PD’s paper justifying Kingsmills.

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Mark P - March 16, 2011

Really? Now that would be an interesting addition to the archive…

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Budapestkick - March 16, 2011

On a more general note, I must say I’ve always had a profound dislike of people using the term ‘fascist’ out of context, such as referring to Thatcher or, in my youth, particularly authoritarian teachers. But referring to loyalists or even modern populist nationalists like the BNP as fascists seems anachronistic. Fascism was a uniquely 20th century phenomenon and using the same analysis for qualititatively different groups doesn’t tell you a great deal about them.

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WorldbyStorm - March 16, 2011

I agree with you strongly about the danger of over using the term, but I think there’s a strong case that the BNP are fascist in some respects.

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Budapestkick - March 16, 2011

I think they’re a disgusting ultra-right wing, dictatorial racist mob of scumbags but in terms of their social base and other issues they are significantly different from the fascist movements of the 30s and 40s. Not any better mind, just a different kettle of noxious fish.

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WorldbyStorm - March 16, 2011

But do you think their relationship is ultimately defined by their social base, or their relation to it? In other words if they locked into a broader social base would that be the defining factor that made them fascist?

That said I do agree it’s difficult to map the 30s onto the 00s and 10s.

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9. max farrar - August 30, 2014

Thanks for posting this pamphlet. I’m accessing it while co-writing a book about Big Flame (to be published by Merlin Press when we finally complete it). One small point about your intro . . . Big Flame was NEVER Maoist. In fact you quote our statement (entirely true) that “we are not Maoists, Stalinists or Trotskyists”. What exactly we were, in terms of political traditions on the left, was always hard to define. We were in the early period highly influenced by Lotta Continua, but we were were more feminist, more libertarian, more anti-racist, more eclectic than LC – and (perhaps) everyone else on the organised left. In the late 70s and early 80s, we were more ‘social movement-ist’, but we always had a national committee which attempted to sort out some kind of a joint line, so in that sense were closer to the ‘democratic centralists’. Much more democratic than centralist. I’m writing the section on BF’s work within TOM right now, and paying particular attention to what we had to say about the roe of violence in politics . . . even more pertinent today with the sweep of violent Islamist politics.

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WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2014

Thanks Max. Always had a soft spot for BF, and take your point entirely re it not being Maoist. Will amend accordingly.

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