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Shedding light on aspects of the conflict… March 31, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, The Left.

Here’s an interesting link.

What’s particularly striking about the present period is how a near-hidden history has emerged into the light of day after many decades. I’m not suggesting this is simply true of aspects of Official Republicanism, or of Republicanism in general – however one chooses to define that – alone, but of the conflict more broadly. Consider the Dessie Ellis interview from a week or so back and many other recent contributions.

There are problematic aspects of this. It’s difficult to be entirely sure at this remove precisely what happened in a specific context, memories aren’t set in stone and interpretations even less so. Furthermore these are in many instances contested memories, as indeed are those who claim title to various formations.

But, that’s always the way on some levels. A researcher, or simply those with an interest in an area or an history, will always have to weigh up what it is that they see and attempt to place it within a broader context.

What is important to consider is that now and for a while longer it may just be possible to get hold of first hand accounts from those who were involved in part in shaping a long and tortuous history of the last four decades. Once lost, they’re lost forever. So in a sense no wonder that now the situation has calmed, that time has lent a little distance – though it does no good to underestimate the hurt on the part of many, not least those who weren’t participants but were caught up in events they had no control of – that efforts are being made to contribute to the record and that a space is (or has) opened up where it is now possible to do so.

I think we’ll see a lot more of this over the next while.


1. Ghandi - March 31, 2011

Is there a link to the earlier article.


WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2011

Great question. I don’t have one to hand.


2. Jim Monaghan - March 31, 2011

For elderly activists it is difficult to regard events you were personally involved with as history. I remember describing lost causes I and his mother were involved with in the late 60s and 70s to my eldest and my surprise when I realised that for him it was history.
Again every leaflet should be put in a library. A friend Sean O’Mahoney did a great job collected Republican literature of every type. Since I think handed over to the National Library.Reminiscences are also worth a lot.


3. Justin Moran - March 31, 2011

I’d be interested in the original as well but in looking for it I came across this piece by Brendan Hughes, who was Charlie Hughes’ cousin, that has a very different interpretation of events:



4. WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2011

Well, that’s the interesting aspect of all this, that there are facts and then there are interpretations.


5. Jim Monaghan - March 31, 2011

“O.C. Billy McMillen, who was of the opinion that too many people wanted to join the IRA for the wrong reason – namely, Catholic defence”
And this says it all. No wonder the Officials withered on the vine. Whatever about opposing a military offensive surely protecting workingclass areas from the equivalent of Bombay St. was not all that bad.
I remember McMillan or Goulding saying if the BA attacked the UVF, that the officials would attack the BA. I can imagine what would have happened if the BA stopped a UVF gang attacking a catholic area and if this happened. Talk about abstract politics?


WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2011

I don’t think though that it is an intrinsically dishonorable approach though. Any organisation should be clear as to the nature of the motivations of those joining, and a Marxist organisation particularly so, and also should be clear as to its own motivations.

Simply being in favour of ‘Catholic’ defence wasn’t enough, because as the history records that flipped from defence to offence fairly sharpish.

In reality though I suspect that had there been a repeat of Bombay Street the Officials would have done what they did in other instances and acted precisely in defence of – in this instance – the [Catholic] working class.


Garibaldy - March 31, 2011

Given Jim the prominent role played by McMillen, Sullivan and others in protecting working class areas I think we can be assured that they had no problem defending working class areas. What they did have a problem with was an organisation that would act as a specifically Catholic force.

IIRC what was said was that if the British army attacked the people of the Shankill then they would be glad to help in order to prevent an attack on a civilian population. This was during a period when there were major riots and gunfire was directed by the British army at civilians. I have a suspicion that the remark was made after the Lower Falls curfew, and that it applied to that type of situation, but I am not sure.

To tie in to Justin’s remark and your own. Another example of Sullivan and others who worked under McMillen’s command of defending working class areas occurred in late 1969, I think November. It is referred to by Brendan Hughes in Voices from the Grave. Hughes was part of a Catholic mob that was on its way to burn protestant houses. An IRA unit pulled guns on them to stop them. Who were the republicans in that situation?

Hughes’s recollection in Voices from the Grave was that he was swept along and felt uncomfortable about it. As noted in the recent WP publication on the curfew, the IRA volunteers remember it differently, with him screaming abuse at them for stopping the crowd. The crowd also contained several others who went on to be leading provisionals in the area. That was pointed to as the difference between a catholic defence force and a republican force acting in defence of the working people as a whole.


6. Jim Monaghan - March 31, 2011

Going back to the history, how do you explain how the Officials died on the vine. Why did Adams, Dessie Ellis who were initially attracted to the Officials join the Provos.
I don’t want at this stage to rehash the “lost Revolution”, but the Officials became embarrassed at the reality that there was not a simple way to get unity across the divide and then rationalised it by blaming the Provos.
But leaving aside this, I am curious at Garibaldi’s explanation on how Adams and co. supplanted fairly totally the Officials. And just to add my opinion is from what I saw in Dublin is that the Officials had by far the better cadres.


WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2011

Well I won’t speak for Garibaldy, because I suspect we might have different interpretations, but for my part I suspect that in the situation extant in 69 – 73 the idea for many of stepping back into a purely defensive posture wasn’t something they would countenance. I think that was a mistake both in utilitarian terms and on a class level but I understand why an embattled community might take that route particularly given that there seemed to be a moment when more might be achieved than in retrospect now seems possible.

After all it is a more potent message to say we’ll hit back than everyone let’s see what happens next. And that’s not adding in a heap of other issues, the very real ties of community, nationalism, fear that the Officials might be too radical, etc, etc.

Also I think that it’s not entirely correct to say the Officials died on the vine, or at least not at the point Adams went for the Provisionals over the Officials. They were still a force to be reckoned with after the ceasefire. As late as the founding of the IRSP too come to think of it.


Jim Monaghan - April 1, 2011

The withering took place over a few years. I would put in the South anyway that the banned Provo march welcoming the release of O’Conaill marked the hegemony of the Provos within the Republican tradition.By the time of the IRSP it was over. The IRSP itself was too late on the scene to build an alternative.
I would put the illusions in the UVF (as some sort of proto socialist equivalent in Loyalism) as emanating from that illusion of Goulding/McMillan.The reality is that the BA when it acted against the Shankill it was to prevent even worse excesses than Bombay St.


HAL - March 31, 2011

It will be interesting to see if unity accross the divide begins to happen all be it slowly now that the Provos have disarmed or will the contros up the anti and syphon support away.


WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2011

Hard to see how effectively the anti can be upped at this point. Not saying it can’t be, just it’s difficult to envisage the sort of responses from the state which fundamentally fed the flames in the 68 to 73 period. They’re too sussed now. It’ll all be softly softly as best as they can.


Garibaldy - April 1, 2011

I think I’d say a number of things in response to that Jim. Firstly, I think it’s something of a partitionist attitude. Yes the Provos outstripped what became the WP in the north, but in the south it was a completely different story, at least until the consequences of 1992. And it was an all-island perspective, very heavily weighted on the south, that was driving Goulding, Mac Giolla and co. One need only look at what was being done and said at the time to see this. And that growth and development in the south would simply have been unthinkable while running some sort of campaign in the north from a purely utilitarian standpoint, never mind from the point of view of developing class politics. So I think the question is a bit loaded and somewhat wrong-headed.

But to come to the north. I think there are a number of reasons, including mistakes made, but the overwhelming reason is sectarianism. This explains why the NILP essentially disappeared, why other left groups remained small, and why the WP never had the same support across the north as in the early 70s.

Goulding said he should have wound things down more slowly. Had that happened, perhaps when some form of IRSP split came, then some people who went would have stayed. But in the meantime, more people would have come in to the Movement for the wrong reasons, the people who were ultimately to oppose the line laid out would probably have had a strengthened position, and the development into a class party could have been fatally crippled. That’s as plausible a counterfactual as maintaining more support in the north.

And let’s also remember that the SDLP enjoyed substantial majority support among the communities that historically the WP and provos drew from throughout the Troubles. Why did people who rejected violence not switch to the WP rather than the SDLP in greater numbers? Nationalism, communalism, religion (catholic schooling, abortion, divorce etc), and the fact that they placed a low importance on class politics, if any.

Maybe if the WP had been more nationalist in the north, it could have got more support. I seriously doubt it would have made much difference – look at the IRSP and its offshoots, or People’s Democracy. No place for them either, with people gravitating to the bigger organisation. Never mind the fact that the WP is not a nationalist part;, on utilitarian terms, again there is the likelihood that a strong nationalist line in the north would have impinged negatively on growth in the south, and thus on the main area that was focused on.

First and foremost though, the WP stuck to the principles of anti-sectarian progressive politics in a place that is both deeply sectarian and not particularly progressive.


7. Earl Williams - March 31, 2011

Re: defence of the Catholic areas. One neglected part of the story is what happened with groups like the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association (I think that was the right name) and the various informal trade union groups set up purely for defence purposes.

You see occasional references to them in the literature, but I don’t think they’ve ever been studied at all.


WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2011

It’s a very interesting area. My own sense is that they tended to be subsumed into the larger formations… or were sideline completely and dissipated.


Earl Williams - March 31, 2011

That sounds about right – but they’re still one of the ‘roads not travelled’.


WorldbyStorm - March 31, 2011

Definitely. It’s funny, I think that’s a great way of putting it. There was the potential for a number of outcomes in 69/70, even perhaps 71, but by 72 I think that the options had narrowed massively.


8. Ghandi - April 1, 2011

This would appear to be the link to the original article



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