1960s >> 1969 >> no-776-april-1969

The Great Non-Event

Now the tumult and the shouting, real and phoney, has died; the news-hounds have gone to re-live the scene elsewhere; the successful candidates breathe affably from the upholstery of the Members’ Lounge; the tickman regains a place of prominence in the workers’ troubles . . . it’s all over! Tragically, most of those who played parts, especially the voters who gave point to the exercise, knew precious little of what it was all about.

Captain O’Neill and his supporters perhaps come nearest to an appreciation of the situation. They have inherited a state and a party which emerged from the power struggles of Irish capitalism in the 20s fully clothed in the trappings of bigotry and intolerance. The material conditions of capitalism which then needed that bigotry and intolerance have changed, and continue to change rapidly as capitalism in Eire acquires a political maturity in keeping with its rapid post-war economic development.

The situation does not only allow for, but in fact demands, a de-escalation of all the old fictions if the new circumstances are to yield their obvious economic advantages in cross-border trade and the like. The Stormont parliament, with its parish-pump status, need not be an impediment. Indeed, all the leading political spokesmen in the South agree that a future ’united Ireland’ will allow Stormont the retention of its present powers.

This is the main factor that has determined the O’Neill Wing of Unionism on a more moderate course just as, ironically, it has caused a complete political about face among leading Northern Irish Nationalists — who are today as vociferous in their demands for “British standards for Northern Ireland” as they were yesterday in wanting to break the British connection! These people, ably abetted by the Labour Party and the large ’non-political’ but pro-O’Neill group of businessmen who make up the New Ulster Movement (formed to support O’Neill candidates in the recent elections) represent ’responsible’—in the capitalist sense—political opinion.

But yesterday’s slogans and red herrings still have many thousands of active supporters, mainly (tragically) among the most impoverished sections of the working class. These are the people whom successive generations of ’responsible’ Unionist politicians brought up on the slogans “Home Rule is Rome Rule” and “Catholics are Disloyal”. In the fierce pace of change they have been slow to adjust and are easy prey to the ignorant slobberings of the firebrand Paisley. Their movement, insofar as it accepts the present social order, is capitalist, but it serves no need of capitalism today and can continue for only a time on the bitter slogans of yesterday. Assuredly, as opportunities for hooliganism and violence get less, it will atrophy and pass into history.

This leaves the various movements for civil rights that rapidly appeared and coalesced into an effective political weapon within the last two years. These groups were forged largely by the younger workers in the schools and university, in the factories and on the dole. More intelligent in ambition and political direction than previous movements born locally from frustration, political humbug, and fear, they were nevertheless hamstrung from the outset by their failure to get beneath the surface of the political events and institutions against which they militated and to appreciate that their real enemy was not Unionism or Nationalism, sectarianism or discrimination, but the system of class ownership that brings these things into being throughout the whole world of capitalism.

If we allowed a degree of comparison we should say that undoubtedly the Peoples Democracy movement, emanating largely from Belfast’s Queen’s University, came nearer to an appreciation of the situation than did the Civil Rights Association or the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, and it is, incidentally, worthy of note that while some of the better known civil rights leaders obviously used their position to get into parliament, the PD contested, with distinction and courage, eleven constituencies without regard for the religion and politics traditionally popular in such constituencies, and with a policy that surrendered nothing to traditional conservatism.

Richard Montague