1960s >> 1969 >> no-782-october-1969

The Failure of Civil Rights

Report from Belfast

Few people with an ear to the ground in Northern Ireland could have escaped the growing evidence of murder, well organised and equipped, lingering in the political shadows. Yet when the murder guns added their fury to the flying stones, bottles and petrol bombs during the mid-August days of terror, most people were struck with a condition of profound shock beyond the limits of anything they had previously experienced.

It was not simply the fact that eight people had died and hundreds of others had been injured. Rather was it the realisation that the agents of death, people consciously organised to extend the more-or-less usual stone-throwing into an orgy of killing, were so many. Even more were people stunned by the absolute assault on their illusion of physical security; huge buildings and rows of working class houses burned fiercely, often without the attendance of a single fireman and the cherished notion of the ubiquitous power of ‘law and order’, whether hated or admired, was dispelled — for its admirers by its impotency and for its haters, by identification with the mob.

In a violent society eight human lives are but a week-end road accident statistic and people in the familiar role of fleeing refugees are constant T.V. fare that merely plucks the conscience to offhanded sympathy. But the dead were not Jews or Arabs; the queues of terrified refugees, whose homes had provided illumination for the carnage, were not Vietnamese, Biafrans or any of those ‘foreigners’ usually engaged in the practice. They were Belfast people: people who spoke as we do . . . walked the same streets . . .  knew the same problems.

The strife was confined to working class areas. The back-to-back houses of Derry’s Bogside—among the most miserable slums in Europe — Belfast’s Falls Road, Shankill Road and Ardoyne area. Those who died, those who were wounded, those who were burned or terrified out of their homes were members of the working class. It was members of the working class, too, that did the killing, wounding and burning. No upper class casualties were reported.

The Catholic worker puts the blame on the Protestant worker and the police. The Protestant worker puts the blame on the Catholic worker. The politicians, too, viciously and vigorously, reflect the bitterness and prejudice of their supporters: each blames the ‘other side’ as well as the police, B Specials, Paisleyites and the I.R.A.—some of the more fanciful even advance the notion of an international anarchist or communist conspiracy.

It is pointless here to deal with the accusations and counter-accusations that have mostly been tailored to the prejudices of the people making them. As Socialists, we are less concerned with the battles than we are with the material conditions that brought them about. By this we do not mean the various provocations, demonstrations, government bans, lunatic clergymen, police viciousness that go to make up the events of Northern Ireland’s recent history. We don’t so much want to know who pulled the trigger—rather do we wish to examine the reason for loading the gun.

That reason is to be found in the facts of working class life in Northern Ireland today. It is to be found in unemployment, in slums, in homelessness and all the other poverty features of working class life. These are the things which breed the notion and the reality of discrimination, that create divisions within communities, that determine the economic priorities that go to make up the stock-in-trade of all the politicians and political parties claiming ability to run an insane economic system in a sane way.

It is the failure of the politicians and their parties that drives the workers in despair to street protests and demonstrations. But the people who organise and partake in these demonstrations are as ignorant of the economic facts of capitalism as the politicians whose failure creates the desire for direct action. What they fail to understand is that the system we live under, the system which they vote for at elections is by its very nature incapable of meeting working class needs; that poverty, slums and unemployment, are a natural and permanent feature of the capitalist scheme of things; that the politicians, even if they are eager to, simply cannot solve these problems. Their job is to administer the system of capitalism, to legislate conditions for the smoothest possible functioning of the system and to ensure that the rights of property are preserved and protected. The political complexion of the party running the system is irrelevant; while society is organised on the basis of profit rather than human needs, the system dictates to the party in power.

Ironically, the protesters and demonstrators see the problems against which they militate in the same terms as the politicians who run capitalism. Their ‘‘demands” are always “realistically” anchored to the standards prevailing among the more fortunate section of the working class. Never would they dare to ‘demand’ for the workers they claim to represent the mode of life enjoyed by members of the owning class. In other words they accept capitalism; they respect its title to ownership of the resources of the earth; they bow to its class structure. What concerns them is not the fact of slavery but the condition of the slave.

In the case of the Civil Rights movement, the struggle for the establishment of standards for all members of the working class based on the conditions of those workers who have jobs, homes and votes has tended to divide the working class and facilitate the Unionist clique in their efforts to play on the old fears which their political forbears manufactured to suit the needs of the propertied class at the turn of the century.

True, the C.R.A. tried to avoid this at the outset but the Unionist bosses, through the medium of their Party’s police, the R.U.C., more and more succeeded in confining C.R.A. activities to Catholic areas and branding those activities ‘Catholic’ and ‘subversive’. It was then only a short step to police violence as demonstrators refused confinement to Catholic areas and Unionist politicians, both ‘extreme’ and ‘moderate’, verbally or by silence, encouraged the more violent Orange extremists into the punch-up between the police and the civil rights demonstrators. History—the political manoeuvreings created to suit the needs of the propertied class, expressed in Ireland in a particularly torturous complex of religious subterfuge—had ensnared the Civil Rights movement: to the Catholic they were now an organisation struggling to win for the most downtrodden section of the Catholic working class the conditions enjoyed, or endured, by the more prosperous section of the Protestant workers. To the latter they seemed a threat to the illusion of his security. Not that they wanted to, but because they failed to understand the real nature of the problem, C.RA. had been forced into the role of another sectarian movement.

Of course the Civil Rights organisations could protest this analysis: they could indicate many speeches and statements in which leading members of their movement made it clear that Protestant workers, too, would benefit from the implementation of the Civil Rights programme in Northern Ireland.

This is true. Not only that, but a few of the Civil Rights spokesmen—sometimes played down by the more ‘respectable’ elements of the movement—even expressed the Northern Ireland problem in class terms and declared the need for social revolution. Even the latter, however, played the game in accordance with the rule laid down by the political gamesmasters of capitalism. They led the workers on to believe that their poverty—and homelessness and unemployment are expressions of poverty, as is the lack of a local government vote —was the result of Unionist government.

Inevitably, given this thesis, the struggle at local level deteriorated into a slang-match on the relative misery of Catholic and Protestant applicants for jobs and council houses—with, very often, Civil Rights spokesmen extolling a Catholic workers’ service to the armed forces of capitalism in support of his claim!

It might be argued that at least the Civil Rights movement have achieved the Unionist Government’s commitment to some reforms. Let us examine this accomplishment.

A ‘points system’ for allocating local government housing. This may ensure that the number of houses which are available will be distributed according to a given formula which purports to measure ‘need’. It might rule out religious discrimination in the allocation of houses; it will certainly not rule out the fact of discrimination for no legalistic formula can access personal needs and when there are two applicants for one house, one of them must be discriminated against. Nor will a ‘points system’ solve the housing problem. The root of that problem is this: in capitalist society, homes, like everything else, are produced for profit and not the needs of the homeless. Those with money don’t have a housing problem; it is only the members of the working class that need to enlist the assistance of government and local government councils in an effort to find a place to live.

What is required is not a ‘points system’ for the allocation of houses but a Socialist system of production for use in which the vast resources of society can be brought to the task of providing homes for all.

And what of that other ‘great reform’, the extension of the local government franchise? Socialists obviously will greet this as a welcome broadening of the basis of local democracy. But will it solve any working class problems? Certainly, if there was mass understanding of capitalism’s inability to solve the problems of the working class allied to an understanding of the Socialist alternative to the capitalist scheme of things, the additional votes might help Socialists to achieve an earlier local government platform to assist in the final assault on capitalism at central government level.

But the working class does not suffer from the fact that workers who are not ratepayers have no votes in local government elections. The poverty and degradation of working class life stems from the worker’s position in capitalist society and the working class have the electoral strength now to overthrow capitalism and institute Socialism. It is not the lack of votes that delays the change; it is the misuse of the overwhelming superiority of those votes which the workers already have. The Civil Rights movement, like all movements for the reform of capitalism help to ensure the continuing misuses of those votes by directing the attention of the working class away from the real source of their problems. Part, too, of the tragedy of the bitter struggle led by the Civil Rights movement for puny reforms is that these have been won at the cost of even greater divisions within the working class—divisions which help to keep capitalism, the very basis of all working class problems, longer in power.

Richard Montague

A Bit of Sanity in Belfast

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