Ireland 1968-69: Mass revolt against the Orange state

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RUC and loyalists charge into nationalists at Battle of the Bogside, Derry 1969

By Bernie McAdam

FIFTY years ago on 5 October 1968, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) savagely beat a peaceful civil rights march off the streets of Derry. This police riot was flashed over television screens throughout Ireland and Britain that very evening. Among the defenceless marchers was Westminster MP Gerry Fitt, with blood streaming down his face after being truncheoned. Some 96 people needed hospital treatment.

The events of that day caused widespread anger within the nationalist community throughout “Northern Ireland”. It also shocked people in mainland Britain, firstly on account of the unbridled police violence, and then with the news that civil rights that they took for granted did not exist in a part of the “United Kingdom”. It all seemed a bit more like Alabama or Mississippi.

Indeed these events ignited a year of mass protests similar to the Black civil rights movements in the USA and later in South Africa. This threw the Six Counties into a major crisis, and open a thirty-year revolt of the nationalist population of the Six Counties against the Ulster Unionist and British rule of the province.

The autonomous Northern Ireland statelet was carved out of Ireland when Ireland’s southern 26 counties gained independence from Britain as the Irish Free State in December 1921. Northern Ireland from the outset was a highly repressive and viciously sectarian state, its borders drawn to create an artificial majority for the mainly Protestant Unionists. The Protestant sectarian Orange Order, with its intimidating street marches, filled all positions of power and influence.

For the 35 per cent minority, mainly Catholic, who identified as Irish nationalists, it meant widespread discrimination, especially in housing and jobs. There was gerrymandering of local government boundaries to safeguard Unionist control of councils where Protestants were in a minority. Ratepayers could vote but not lodgers, while company directors got extra votes in local elections. Hence for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), founded in 1967 and modelled on the Black civil rights movement in the USA, the demand for “one man, one vote” was absolutely crucial.

The Special Powers Act, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the infamous “B-Specials” (the Ulster Special Constabulary) ensured that Northern Ireland was a veritable prison house for the Catholic nationalist minority. While the state was being formed between 1920 and 1922, 557 people, overwhelmingly Catholics, were killed in sectarian violence. Thereafter, Orange parades often descended into pogroms of Catholic areas by loyalists and state forces, especially at moments of political and social tension. Lord Craigavon, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland said in a parliamentary debate in April 1934 that “All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State”.

Civil rights

NICRA’s strategy was to lobby peacefully for a limited programme of civil liberties. It was supported by the Communist Party of Ireland, the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), Republican Labour and the broader Irish nationalist and republican movements. Its demands included reform of the electoral system and the abolition of the Special Powers Act and the B-Specials. Its programme did not call into question the constitutional link with Britain.

NICRA, in truth a most moderate body with both middle-class and working-class members, was hurled into the spotlight as it tapped into the pent-up anger and frustration of the oppressed nationalist community. When Home Affairs Minister William Craig tried to ban NICRA’s 5 October march in Derry, NICRA was reluctantly forced by the more radical Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) to go ahead with it regardless. DHAC comprised local NILP activists like Eamonn McCann, later charged alongside two others for organising the march.

In the aftermath of the march, the Citizens Action Committee (CAC) in Derry was also formed by middle-class Catholic elements headed by Ivan Cooper and John Hume, with view to dampening down the spirit of revolt. The left largely dissolved itself into this very respectable body.

After the Derry march, Peoples’ Democracy (PD) was formed in Queen’s University Belfast. Comprised mainly of student radicals, PD adopted a Civil Rights charter with additional demands on housebuilding, jobs and farm cooperatives. They were the most dynamic and radical force around at the time, often incurring the wrath of NICRA leaders, and organised mass protests in Belfast.

PD led a four-day civil rights march from Belfast to Derry, which was repeatedly attacked and harassed by loyalist thugs with police connivance. The ambush at Burntollet Bridge in January 1969 was particularly vicious, as eighty marchers were subjected to bricks and bottles by club-wielding loyalists, including known B-Specials. The RUC were complicit in leading the marchers into this trap.

Bloodied but unbowed, the marchers successfully made it to Derry where they received a rapturous welcome. In revenge later that evening, the RUC ran amok in the Catholic Bogside district. Barricades were thrown up and the RUC driven out of the area for a week. Thus “Free Derry” was born.

NICRA continued to centre their campaign around the demand for “one man, one vote”, with even the UK’s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson pleading for a universal franchise. But Northern Ireland’s Unionist prime minister Captain Terence O’Neill failed to deliver this, as he increasingly faced hardline Unionist intransigence. His apparent “softness” led to his downfall, and Wilson’s threat of Westminster intervention was shown to be mere bluff as the British government melted before Ulster loyalist opposition to any change.

Struggle escalates

It was increasingly clear to the nationalist community that serious reform was not forthcoming. NICRA had no strategy to deal with this, while their marches and supporters came increasingly under the cosh of loyalists and state forces. So when nationalists drove out a large-scale RUC incursion on the Bogside with petrol bombs and bricks, this finally forced Labour’s Home Secretary James Callaghan to send in British troops.

These were welcomed initially as standing between unarmed Catholic civilians and a heavily tooled-up RUC. There were also serious clashes in Belfast at the same time as the Battle of the Bogside, as loyalists sought to drive out Catholic families, again often aided and abetted by the RUC.

The welcome given to British troops however soon evaporated, as meaningful reforms failed to materialise, and street clashes subsequently broke out between troops and nationalists. With NICRA’s demands being ignored by the Unionist state and its British backers, nationalists began to look elsewhere for direct action to defend their interests.

The anti-Catholic pogroms confirmed a traditional Republican truism for many nationalists, that they could not rely on the (British) state for protection. There followed the growth of Citizens’ Defence Committees and then the rise of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the main though not exclusive armed force. A struggle to reform the Northern Ireland statelet had grown over into a struggle to “Smash Stormont” and to get rid of the border. British occupation, and later direct British rule were now seen as the final underpinning of the 1922 Partition border.

The Ballymurphy Massacre in August 1971, in which 11 civilians were killed by the Parachute Regiment, and then the Parachute Regiment’s killing of 14 unarmed protesters in protesters in “Bloody Sunday” on 30 January 1972 alienated a whole community and escalated the armed struggle against Britain. The slaughter in Derry happened under the Tories, but shamefully there was no protest from the Labour party at this. The Parliamentary Labour Party actually voted to accept the April 1972 Widgery Report on Bloody Sunday that declared the British Army innocent, a whitewash only overturned many years later by the Saville Inquiry in 2010.

The Orange state: still a sectarian endeavour

The initial year of mass revolt thus gave way to a republican armed guerrilla campaign, which after thirty years was still unable to expel the British from the north. The political wing of this movement, Sinn Fein, eventually sued for peace, agreeing to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in April 1998. The hallmark of this deal was a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly with a “power-sharing” excessive. Sinn Fein dropped its militant opposition to the Six County state, while the Provisional IRA decommissioned its weapons. Both recognised a renamed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and accepted a continued Unionist veto over Irish reunification.

Twenty years on, the GFA lies in tatters, with no Assembly and no power-sharing executive since January 2017. Nevertheless, “peace” still holds on for now. Indeed some of the more blatant forms of sectarian discrimination have been whittled away thanks to thirty years of resistance. But the Orange state has not been smashed and still remains a sectarian endeavour.

The GFA has not decreased sectarianism; rather, sectarian tensions remain as high as ever. The Assembly, now gone, was based on a sectarian headcount and a sectarian allocation of resources to benefit politicians and middle-class elements in both communities. Opponents of the GFA are still hounded and repressed. Internment without trial (or rather, internment on remand), strip-searching of republican prisoners and even the non-jury Diplock Courts remain. The Six County state is still a sectarian bulwark of the Union with Britain.

The indelible birthmark of the Orange state was that it was founded upon a systematic social oppression of the minority on the basis of their nationality: their identification with Irish nationalism and their support for a united Ireland. In that sense the question of religious differences was always secondary. Discrimination was so widespread and entrenched that a few reforms alone could never guarantee social justice. The abolition of the state and of the border was a prerequisite for uplifting the nationalist minority from its second-class status.

Sinn Fein’s years of eating humble pie since the GFA has not by one jot progressed their goal of “peace with justice”, let alone a united Ireland. Even elementary rights that Sinn Fein have supported, like the Irish Language Act and same-sex marriage, have been sabotaged by reactionary Unionist bigotry. The Unionist veto on just about everything still rules. It has not been the GFA “peace process” but the threat of Brexit (and its likely disastrous consequences on the economy of the north and south of Ireland alike) that has raised the border question once again.

Lessons of 1968

A key lesson of the 1968-69 mass revolt is that a determined struggle to end sectarian discrimination would inevitably revive the Irish national question. Partition, established in 1921, itself had been part of a reactionary deal that defeated the objectives of the Irish national revolution for a free and fully independent 32-county republic. The northern state could only survive through heavy doses of repression for nationalists and marginal privileges for loyalists.

The civil rights movement’s pacifist leadership was petrified by the forces of mass revolt that it had unwittingly unleashed. This motley collection of Stalinists, liberals and “constitutional” nationalists however found themselves in competition with the more radical PD. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA and other “physical force Republicans” rejected the civil rights movement’s perspective of reforming Stormont from within. They became the main force on the ground because they addressed the national question and provided much-needed defence to nationalist areas; but they also subsumed the nationalist minority’s struggle into their failed “armed struggle” strategy in the process.

The ideological legacy of Stalinism was typified by the pre-1968 Official Republican Movement’s “stages theory” of first reforming Stormont, followed later by a united Ireland and then (at some even more distant point) socialism. This strategy sat well with the respectable civil rights movement’s pacifist leaders. However the Provos’ early “Smash Stormont” perspective eventually reduced itself to a hopeless guerrilla campaign that could not be any effective substitute for the power of a mass movement. And the Provos’ armed campaign itself ran into a cul-de-sac, unable as it was to match superior British firepower and repression. The end result was a “peace deal” in which Republican leaders reneged on their previous political objectives.

The legacy of the small forces of the left has not been much better. PD, Eamonn McCann and the Derry activists, despite their radicalism, were also unable to build a revolutionary socialist alternative to the failed reformist and “armed struggle” strategies on offer. An alternative socialist strategy had to recognise that agitation for civil rights in the north had to oppose Partition and take account of national aspirations towards a united Ireland. That meant fighting for a working-class and socialist leadership of the revolutionary-democratic struggle that had opened up against the Orange state.

So alongside the demands against discrimination, against the Special Powers Act and against Stormont, revolutionary socialists should have formulated an action programme including the following:

The need to agitate for action within the factories and workplaces. All-out strike action was vital.

The need to challenge the self-appointed CAC leadership in Derry by calling for open democratic public meetings, to decide future action and to fight for Six County-wide Action Council to coordinate workers’ strike action.

In response to loyalist and state attacks, it was imperative for local action councils to organise and train detachments of youth and workers as defence militias. In the absence of such democratically-controlled militias, militant youth were often diverted into a constant round of street fights with the police.

The left urgently needed to raise class demands alongside the democratic ones. For a massive scheme of public works to create jobs and build houses for all. Opening up the books of the local councils to delegates of working-class organisations. Real equality could not be realised without fighting to end the common exploitation of both Catholic and Protestant workers, and this was crucial in appealing to the more progressive elements of the Protestant working class.

There had to be an orientation to southern workers, and indeed to British workers, for solidarity action. Agitation amongst soldiers in the south, demands on them to refuse to seal the border (and to open up the arsenals for defence of barricaded areas) would also have been necessary.

This approach would at the very least would have become a real focus for militants in developing an all-Ireland revolutionary socialist organisation, as a counterweight to the incipient and failing strategies of Stalinism and “physical force” Republicanism. This would have been a legacy which might just have put the revolutionary-democratic struggle on the road towards permanent revolution for socialism and an Irish Workers’ Republic.


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