Letter: Irish civil rights


While none would argue that the Civil Rights Movement as a whole in Northern Ireland is out to abolish capitalism, and while I would agree that only this can finally solve our most basic problems, I would nevertheless suggest that our indirect potential in this direction is much greater than you appear to anticipate.

But first let me make it clear that this movement did not “tend to divide the working class”, as you say in your October issue, since at best only a very spurious unity ever existed. We have not however brought its various sections together—at this stage.

You correctly suggest that sectarianism has been deliberately fostered by the Unionist Party in order to prevent the development of a class consciousness which would be the result of unity between Catholic and Protestant workers. But you fail to point out that the denial of Civil Rights—such things as political patronage and electoral malpractice—has all along been the chief, though admittedly not the only weapon at the government’s disposal. The “privileges” bestowed upon the Protestant workers have been relatively “puny”, but one thing is clear, the World Socialist Party of Ireland has failed to convince them of this. To the Protestant worker, a small but concrete privilege is worth more than an abstract political promise, and to the Catholic worker the difference between spending six weeks or six years in a rat-infested slum, is not “puny”. In an area of high, and chronic unemployment, bad housing, and low wages any privilege is enlarged, any injustice magnified. Protestants fear they will lose what little they have, Catholics that their intolerable situation would be relieved but for Protestant selfishness. In these circumstances it will continue to be impossible for the Socialist Party of Ireland, or any other group to bridge the gap between the vast majority of Northern Ireland workers.

The first step on this bridge therefore will be the removal of just those things which in the past have facilitated a Capitalist government and opposition to encourage the working class to misuse “the overwhelming superiority” of its votes.

Only when a Protestant worker no longer has the irrational feeling that he is a member of a privileged group, and when a Catholic worker realises that his condition has not improved quite as much as he had hoped, can there be the possibility of a class consciousness emerging. This will not inevitably follow a successful conclusion of our campaign but it cannot precede it. Only when full Civil Rights have been wrung from a fearful and unwilling government can the working class ever be united, and only the Civil Rights Movement, I would submit, is equipped to do just that.

Respectfully yours,
J. Quinn, 
Newtonabbey, Co. Antrim.

The World Socialist Party in a pamphlet, Civil Rights or Socialism, issued in January of this year said:

  If the campaign for Civil Rights earns every worker in N. Ireland an equal opportunity to live in a slum and face unemployment and if all are afforded equal rights to vote for the continuance of the economic regime from which their miseries flow, the “Civil Rights” will have achieved its purpose. Theirs is not to question the economic circumstances behind slums and unemployment but simply to see that all share equally in the misery.

This sums up the line of argument taken by the various articles on the subject of the Civil Rights Movement in the Socialist Standard, including the October contribution to which Mr. Quinn’s letter refers.

Mr. Quinn agrees that only the abolition of capitalism can solve our basic problems but he infers that between those basic problems and conditions as they are in Northern Ireland today there is an ’indirect potential’ for improvement. If he means that better community relations and an end to open sectarian violence can be brought about, we are prepared to accept this and prepared to accept that all manner of people and organisations can help to bring this about but, while capitalism remains to shape the events of everyday life, discrimination must continue to exist.

Legalistic formulae may remove, wholly or in part, the religious element of selection from the spheres of housing and employment but, we repeat, there is no devisable formula for running capitalism in such a way as to end either its housing or unemployment problems or for removing the social and economic degradation of second-class citizenship from the working class, Catholic and Protestant. This discrimination against the overwhelming majority will continue as long as capitalism remains and any organisation that diverts the attention of the working class away from this discrimination merely canalises their revolutionary potential into the safe stream of reformist politics and, thus, helps perpetuate injustice.

Unquestionably, Unionist ‘ward-healing’ politicians have entrenched their position by throwing crumbs to the more active section of their supporters and since these supporters are Protestant, inevitably Catholics often have their claim to such crumbs set aside. In similar circumstances, Catholics, Jews, or atheists would act likewise. Obviously, therefore, it is not against the distribution of the crumbs that we should militate, but against the ’circumstances’—the circumstances of capitalism which creates not only its political priorities but the conditions of scarcity and poverty that makes selection or discrimination necessary.

Mr. Quinn claims that a small but ‘concrete privilege’ to a Protestant worker or the difference to a Catholic worker between spending six weeks or six years in a rat-infested slum is worth more than an abstract political promise. His comparison between the Protestant workers’ ‘concrete privilege’ and the Catholic workers’ ’rat- infested slum’ may, in his case, be purely accidental, but it is typical of many who follow the reasoning of the Civil Rights movement to assume that such a comparison exists. It is nonsense.

There are at least as many Protestant denizens of slumdom as Catholic—indeed the most outrageously ’loyal’ of the ‘loyalists’ of Belfast’s Shankill Road, who embellish their slum gables with the legend “This we will maintain!”, are victims of the same notion as that suggested by Mr. Quinn’s comparison.

Of course their notion of privilege, like the individual Catholic’s heart-cry for a decent house, may appear more real than ‘an abstract political promise’. The new house is achievable for a few—and with it, incidentally, new problems, often as great as the one the new house solved—but for the working class the housing problem, like the unemployment problem, the problems of poverty, insecurity, violence, etc., is insoluble in a system of production for profit.

It is the tragedy of our class that individual workers work and hope for the solution of their own immediate problem and it is the strength of capitalism that its conditions can create the political climate for workers to organise against some feature of the system rather than unite for its complete overthrow. In fact, organisations like CRA, insofar as they draw the attention of the workers from the real cause of their problems and lend credibility to the capitalist fiction that working class problems are soluble within capitalism, are the enemies of the working class—ably abetting the political administrators of capitalism in concealing from the working class the real nature of capitalist exploitation.

Mr. Quinn takes us to task for claiming that the activities of the CRA have tended to divide the working class and he makes the point that the workers were not, in the first instance, united. The point is a valid one and we would agree that the use of the term ‘further’ before ‘divide’ may have better expressed the position from our point of view—since the workers were never united in pursuit of Socialism. On the other hand, from Mr. Quinn’s reformist point of view, considerable unity on a number of broad issues did exist prior to the recent troubles and this unity is certainly a casualty of the sectarian strife. Anyone who has moved about in the different areas affected by the shootings, burnings and lootings could not be other than appalled at the very real fear and hatred which the recent outbreaks, and the frictions attending thereto, has engendered between Catholic and Protestant members of the working class. As we indicated in our article, the CRA, not because it wanted to, but because it failed to understand the real nature of the problem, has become an instrument of sectarianism and that sectarianism is a further obstacle on the road to a final solution of our problems.

Mr. Quinn rightly points out that, to date, the WSP has failed to convince the workers of the need for Socialism. It must be said that our failure is not attributable to the prowess of the avowed upholders of capitalism; it is the temporary victory of the unconscious upholders of that system, those who, like Mr. Quinn, fed the working class should devote their energies to the administrative problems of capitalism rather than to the task of abolishing that system.We accept that Mr. Quinn makes the point about our failure to influence the working class not as a snide political broadside but as an honest contribution to political debate. In the same spirit we would point out that, in the matter of failure, the record of those who support the idea of the reform of capitalism is an all-time high—despite the fact that on numerous occasions they have won the overwhelming support of the working class. Generally, their argument, like that offered by Mr. Quinn, is that, while Socialism is the only real answer to the basic problem of the working class, there are certain ’immediate’ problems to which we should turn our attention. They have been struggling with the problem of slums, the problem of unemployment, the problem of violence, of bombs, of war, of crime, of discrimination and all the other ugly features of capitalism for hundreds of years. They have formed mass organisations, elected people to parliaments, signed petitions, sat down and stood up, they have sent workers to early graves and filled capitalism’s gaols . . . but the problems remain to drive the workers into disillusion and apathy.

We would not boast our records; we are pitifully few and our energies and resources are dissipated mainly in endeavouring to counteract the activities of those bodies that waylay our class into the abortive struggle for reforms. But we are the only organisation in Ireland upholding the Socialist claim for a wageless, classless, moneyless society of production for use. During our various electoral activities we have brought that message into the most bigoted Unionist strongholds in Belfast. To date that message has been rejected but, such has been its nature that it has not, and could not, provide the basis for sectarian strife.

Finally, we would say that the CRA has achieved its purpose and will now limp its way into political oblivion. Time will demonstrate the futility of the reforms it has achieved. We would hope that as this becomes clearer we will be able to welcome people like Mr. Quinn into our ranks to put their undoubted enthusiasm, courage and ability in the service of Socialism.

Richard Montague
The World Socialist Party