Fifty years ago this month, troops were deployed on the streets of Derry and Belfast by the British Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson.The capitalist establishment described it at the time as a temporary measure to stop widespread riots and pogroms. Yet troops would patrol the streets of Northern Ireland for the next 28 years.
Establishment commentators will mark the half-century by wringing their hands over the impossible situation facing the army trying to keep apart two ‘warring tribes’ – the Catholic pro-Irish unity nationalists and republicans, and the Protestant pro-UK unionists and loyalists. But the road to August 1969 shows that the possibility existed of successful united working-class struggle.
Following the bloody partition of Ireland by British imperialism in the early 1920s – carried out primarily to cut across national and social revolutionary movements – the minority Catholics in the new Northern Ireland state found themselves second-class citizens. They suffered systematic discrimination in jobs and housing, the repressive ‘Special Power Act’, and were partly disenfranchised by Unionist gerrymandering of electoral constituencies.
By the late 1960s, Catholics were no longer prepared to accept the half-century of Unionist misrule. The youth were inspired by the black civil rights struggles in the United States, as well as the global anti-Vietnam War movement and revolutionary events in France in May 1968. At first, a few hundred took to the streets of Northern Ireland, demanding an end to discrimination, and jobs and housing for all.
In Derry, on 5 October 1968, a protest – mainly made up of left-wing organisations, including the Derry Labour Party, and its youth wing, the Derry Young Socialists – ignored a Stormont government ban on demonstrations. It was brutally attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
The baton-wielding police were caught by TV cameras, igniting fury among Catholics across the North. Overnight, the civil rights struggle became a mass movement.
Left and socialist ideas were strong in the Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists. They not only opposed Unionist misrule, but also the conservative Nationalist Party that had failed to win any meaningful reforms for mistreated Catholics.
The Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists recognised that while Catholics suffered from institutionalised discrimination, the Protestant working class also faced widespread poverty and joblessness, and also suffered from the extreme shortage of public housing.
In the months leading up to August 1968, the labour and trade union movement had the opportunity to lead the civil rights struggle on a clear class basis, uniting Catholic and Protestant workers. But the timid, conservative leadership – including that of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which attracted Protestants and Catholics – stood aside from the gathering maelstrom of mass protests and riots.
They merely called for calm and welcomed the too little, too late ‘reforms’ by the rotten Unionist government. This handed the initiative to middle-class nationalist forces in the civil rights movement, who opposed socialist and working-class ideas and slogans.
Allowing the civil rights struggle to be cast largely in terms of rights only for Catholics was a boon for bigoted demagogues like Ian Paisley. Diehard loyalists would always oppose the granting of any civil rights, but Paisley and his cohorts were given room to whip up wider sectarian hatreds by depicting the civil rights movement as against the interests of Protestants.
The potential for developing the left wing within the civil rights movement was exemplified by the courageous figure of the young Bernadette Devlin. She defeated a Unionist in 1969 to win the Mid Ulster Westminster MP seat.
Her People’s Democracy party, formed by left-wing students at Queens University Belfast, attracted thousands of young Catholics including working-class youth, and a layer of middle-class Protestant students.
However, many of the left civil rights leaders were beset with ultra-left and confused ideas. They tended to adapt to rival leaders’ policies and vacillate under pressure, rather than consistently put forward a clear class position and tactics.
Some agitated for the capitalist-dominated UN to send ‘peace forces’ to the North. But like the British Army, UN troops would primarily be there to protect big business, private property and capitalist law and order.
Supporters and future supporters of Militant – the then name for Committee for a Workers’ International groups in Ireland and Britain – played an important role in the Derry Young Socialists, but our forces were too small to influence events.
A recently declassified police file, published in the Derry Journal of 2 July 2019, shows the RUC was quite accurate in its assessment of the political balance of forces in the civil rights movement.
In a 4 July 1969 intelligence memo requested by Northern Ireland’s home affairs minister, Robert Porter, RUC county inspector David Johnston surmised that three elements vied for control of the movement: “the Nationalists; the Derry moderates of the Action Committee; and the People’s Democracy Trotskyites.”
Notably, Johnston found “Betty Sinclair & Co” – Sinclair was a leading member of the reformist Communist Party of Northern Ireland – a “reckonable force.”
Although the IRA hardly existed at the time, following the failure of its armed ‘border campaign’ in the 1950s, Johnston added that the “official Republican Movement… IRA, Sinn Féin and the Republican Clubs,” were playing an “active role.”
Albeit disparaging, the RUC officer showed the class potential of the civil rights’ struggle: “In composition the Movement was and is Catholic, but in the beginning a Protestant sprinkling of idealists and do-gooders presented a broader facade. This has now largely been shed, however, apart from an element of radical Socialists and Communists.
“At grass roots the Movement has now crystallised into the familiar ‘green’ composed of Republicans and Nationalists, but still, as I have said, containing a vociferous minority grouping of Trotskyites or Revolutionary Socialists.”
As 1969 wore on, especially in the lead-up to the Protestant Orange ‘marching season’, a backlash against the civil rights struggle led to sectarian tensions. The prospect of the annual 15,000-strong Protestant ‘Apprentice Boys’ parade marching past the Catholic Bogside in Derry raised the spectre of a pogrom and sectarian fighting spreading across the North.
In Derry, a citizens’ defence committee was established. In areas of Belfast, local ‘vigilante’ and ‘defence’ groups sprung up, often involving both Catholics and Protestants in ‘mixed areas’ aiming to keep bigots out of their communities.
The right-wing trade union and labour leaders failed to capitalise on these grassroots initiatives. They made no effort to bring together genuine defence groups with organised labour, community groups and tenants’ associations into a powerful anti-sectarian force.
On 12 August, Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists attempted to restrain Bogside youth, but inevitably stones were thrown at Apprentice Boys marchers. Fighting ensued, and the RUC launched a full-scale attack against the Bogside.
What became known as the “Battle of the Bogside” was a two-day uprising by the working class and youth of the area. They erected barricades and rained down a hail of stones and petrol bombs on the RUC’s repeated attempts to invade. Catholics in other parts of the North took to the streets to stretch the police.
Under pressure from mass anger in the South, the taoiseach (Irish prime minister), Jack Lynch, said his government would not “stand idly by.” Irish military field hospitals were to be set up across the border from Derry in Donegal. Although a token act, this was enough to enrage Protestant feelings in the North.
With the ill-trained and ill-equipped RUC facing defeat, the Unionist Northern Ireland government called up the notorious B-Specials, an armed, bigoted Protestant police reserve. This posed the prospect of a bloodbath in the Bogside leading to civil war.
Britain’s Wilson government decided to act to stop this possibility, deploying troops onto the streets of Derry. Given the historic crimes visited upon Ireland by British imperialist rule, it is clear this was not done on humanitarian grounds.
Civil war would have destroyed trade, private property and the economy in Ireland – and with it, bosses’ profits. Conflict would have spread to British cities with sizeable Irish populations. Anger among the large Irish-American population would have led to demands for a damaging economic boycott of Britain.
As it became clear that troops were not going to invade the Bogside, a temporary uneasy calm descended on Derry. In Belfast it was a different matter, with fierce sectarian rioting erupting.
The RUC fired machine gun rounds indiscriminately in the Catholic Falls Road. Seven people were killed in the fighting and over 700 injured. Entire streets were burnt out and residents forced to flee their homes. British troops were also then stationed in Belfast.
Many civil rights leaders welcomed the deployment of troops. Many on the Left, in Ireland and Britain, gave way partially or fully to the mood of support for the army’s presence. In contrast, Militant gave a clear class position and took a principled stand.
The headline of the September issue of the monthly Militant newspaper demanded the withdrawal of the troops. Militant warned: “The call made for the entry of the British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business.”
It was not the army but the actions of working-class people taking to the streets across the North that stemmed conflict and stopped a descent into full-scale civil war. Shop stewards in the large factories and workplaces followed the lead of shipyard shop stewards, who called a mass meeting which voted for a brief strike opposing conflict. In this context, Militant advocated armed trade union-based defence forces.
Rather than support these initiatives and coordinate them, the labour and trade union leaders applauded the Unionist regime’s measly reforms and called for the street barricades to be taken down. This abdication of leadership helped provide space for other emerging forces.
The Provisional IRA (‘Provos’) split from the Official IRA a few months later, citing the failure of the leadership to offer any widespread defence of Catholic areas in August. Loyalist paramilitary organisations like the UDA and UVF soon set about their murderous sectarian campaigns.
The failure of Northern Ireland Labour Party leaders to offer a socialist alternative, instead taking a one-sided, pro-Unionist position, saw the effective demise of that party in the 1970s. New sectarian-based parties came to prominence.
A British army curfew of the Lower Falls in the summer of 1970 marked the end of any lingering Catholic honeymoon with the troops. Many on the Left who previously supported British troops being deployed became cheerleaders for the Provos’ armed campaign.
From the start, Militant warned that the Provos’ divisive campaign of individual terror, based on a minority within a minority of the population, would alienate Protestant workers, deepen sectarian divisions, and fail to achieve republican aims.
August 1969 was a serious setback for the working class. Half a century on, the ‘peace process’ sees society still divided along sectarian lines, and the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly suspended for over two years. Brexit, the ‘backstop’, and a possible future ‘border poll’, all indicate how overcoming sectarian divisions remains insoluble under capitalism.
As in 1969, only by building a mass party of the working class with socialist policies can workers defeat the Green and Orange bosses, overcome sectarianism, and lead the fight for a socialist transformation of society.