1970s >> 1971 >> no-798-february-1971

Northern Ireland 1970 – What price civil rights

Predictably, as 1970 ended, the communications media in N. Ireland, took us over the ground we had travelled in 1970. It was a sad year for the working class and as the T.V. cameras made us relive the events so recently passed we were reminded of the graveyard, the prison cell and, generally, the hate-scene that was Ulster 1970.

Certain names cropped up repeatedly — the political dramatis personae of the grim year just passed. These were the people who were asked by the newspapers, the T.V. networks and the radio commentators to comment on events of yesterday and predict those of tomorrow. These were the new “stars” of the political scene whose fame—or notoriety, dependant on the point-of-view of the appraiser—had emerged from or been consolidated by, the events of 1970. They looked out at us from our T.V.screens or laughed at us from our newspapers, men and women who looked hale and hearty in the flush of their success, giving, with their wisdom, the requisite degree of honour demanded by the occasion.

Paisley, Fitt, Devlin, Hume, Bradford, Cooper, the whole galaxy were there—the sort of super New Year political circus that might be a T.V. producer’s hang-over from the big get-togethers of the other side of show business, during the Christmas period.

As we watched these happy and successful men in gay banter over the events of 1970 and playing the role of witty prognosticators, we, for some reason, thought of Shelley’s quatrain allowing the scene to let us take poetic licence with the final line:

And many more Destructions played,
In the ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like politicians telling lies!

The other actors who played the crowd scenes in the action of the previous year, the working class, were not in attendance. Hundreds of them were unavoidably detained in the prisons, a number of them had achieved the greater anonymity of the cemetery, and many more, blinded or maimed, had withdrawn from the scene. But, from the point-of-view of the stars, the production had been a huge success.

Thus, with the opportunity provided by the now traditional practice of public stocktaking at the end of the year, did we see the situation. Perhaps ours was a jaundiced view; perhaps there are important things we were leaving out. So . . . let’s put it to you!

Are we wrong in asserting that those people whose names became household words as a result of the Civil Rights struggle have now become (as we predicted they would) comfortably ensconced in the Establishment—on the less-competitive “Opposition” side, to be sure, and accommodating themselves with the same trappings of respectability as the gang they largely replaced, the old Catholic Nationalist Party? Now we can hear their voices “like a bad prayer, not overloud” lauding the virtues of law and order and, sickeningly overloud, roundly condemning the violence of which they, to put it at its most charitable, were co-instigators.

But maybe you think we are being tedious in looking only at the fact that some people have used the struggle for “civil rights” as a means of forging for themselves a political position that holds a fair degree of power and privilege. You might even assert that it was their just reward for their part in the struggle.

Well, let’s not be tedious; as Socialists we are only too well aware that capitalism will always provide the temptation to trade principles for material reward. Quite rightly we should consider the struggle for “civil rights” not in the light of the people it threw up to play the role of leaders and politicians but in terms of what it did for our fellows of the working class and what promise it gave us for tomorrow.

We know it set whole communities at each others throats; that more than a score of people died; that many more will carry the physical evidence of their participation in the struggle to their graves; that hundreds of people were burned out of their homes; that thousands of people were intimidated into leaving their homes or jobs, or both; that many thousands of pounds sterling went, in the form of fines, into the coffers of the Crown and that some five or six hundred people found themselves behind bars.

And the promise for tomorrow? Tomorrow, whenever that is, the walls of steel, barbed wire and corrugated iron will come down to reveal the scars of yesterday. The vacant lots where once stood the less-awful back-to-back slums; the pock-marks on the wall that starkly reminds us that so-and-so died here; the whitewashed, wrong-spelt hate chant . . . Thus, the promise of the tomorrow that follows the day when men of good intent, knowing not the cause of our agonies, began their nonviolent protests!

After this tomorrow, unless the working class can be won to aspirations beyond the tribal catch-cries that Unionism, in the service of capitalism, gave them — catch-cries that the leaders of the C.R. stupidly construed as the source of the N. Ireland problem — will come the long agonising days of social convalescance before there is achieved again even the degree of amicable distrust which existed in Che pre-civil rights days.

And yet the Civil Rights Movement has won a complete victory over the Government that opposed them in 1968! They have achieved a virtual unconditional surrender to their demands. On all sides the Official Machine is industriously churning out the paper reforms, the Commissions and Committees that are not reporting are still sitting, the lawyers and the politicians are working overtime and even a politician who promised to surrender his very life if one of the C.R. demands was granted is now a Minister in the Government with the job of advertising the liberality of the Government. Oh yes! the Civil Rights Movement was a success beyond measure in terms of achieving the reforms it pursued. But, as always, the reformists victory is a shallow one. None of the basic problems that afflicted the working class, Catholic and Protestant have been affected by the “reforms” and since it was the political expression of these problems that created the windmills against which the C.R. struggle was directed, these windmills, too, must remain. Even if cloaked in new forms they will remain, if anything, heightened by the tensions and bitterness of the C.R. struggle itself.

“One man—One vote” was one of the great clarions of the Civil Rights Movement. Many people outside the Province, and quite a few within, were led to the belief that some Catholics were being denied votes in local government elections simply because they were Catholics. The actual truth of the matter was that many thousands of members of the working class—and incidentally, more Protestants than Catholics—did not meet the property qualifications required by the local government franchise laws while members of the capitalist class—by virtue of their property and business directorships—were permitted multiple votes.

Now we have “One man—One vote”—well . . . no. Not exactly . . . yet! The Government are engaged in considering and planning a further local government reform measure consequent on the C.R. agitation, and agreed to by the C.R. movement, under which a number of more economically viable local councils will be brought into being in place of the previous abundance of smaller councils. In keeping with the recommendations of a commission led by a Professor Matthews, the central Government at Stormont will take over most of the more important functions previously undertaken by local authorities and the new super councils will have the status of local lavatory committees. So with our new reformed local government franchise system we will all now have an equal opportunity to vote for aspirants—if they can be found—to the freshly-reformed and impotent local councils. But even this “reform” must be waited for and, until the government have designed and have agreed the actual formula for stripping the local councils of their powers, we have the democratic equalitarianism of “One man—No vote”!


Another “reform” was the abolition of the “B” Specials—a Unionist Party “Dad’s Army” under the guise of a reserve police force. Opponents of the Specials used to deride the physical and intellectual qualities of the Specials and, indeed, they compared most unfavourably with the rank-and-file members of the regular police, among many of whom the Specials were a bit of a joke. In the mid-Fifties the “B’s” (whose title accommodated a choice of designation!) were out in force to meet the threat of I.R.A. border raids and came mostly into prominence through their numerous mishaps and accidents—which, while mainly confined to shootings of themselves, did, unfortunately, on a number of occasions, result in the loss of innocent lives.


In place of the Specials we now have the Ulster Defence Regiment which the British and Stormont governments assure us can do the job for which the Specials existed more efficiently than the latter force. Better armed, better officered and trained, and more mobile than the old “B’s”, the force contains most of the physically and intellectually salvagable remnants of the Specials and these are supplemented by the most confused and reactionary elements of the working class, Catholic and Protestant.


This is another of the “reforms” won for us by the Civil Rights movement!


A Commissioner of Complaints has been established to meet another C.R. demand. The report of his first year’s enquiries and the number of complaints made would appear to indicate that either much of the criticism directed against local authorities was exaggerated or that, and this is more likely, when faced with the task of formally lodging a complaint, many people were obliged to think the matter of their complaint through to its conclusion and, accepting the inevitability of their problem as general to their working class condition and station in life, decided not to bother.


Of course the basic cause of the problems which occupy the Commissioner is not within his terms of reference. The problems must remain even if the Commissioner does manage to remove religion from the filing index of capitalism’s misery.


And yet another “reform” . . . ! A Central Housing Authority, perhaps even filled with competent, maybe even, dedicated, people but still faced with the problem of providing “working-class” dwellings in a society where homes, like all other commodities in capitalism, must ensure a profitable return to the usurers and financial spivs, that equals or surpasses other fields of financial enticement.


And again! Pledges and legislation to ensure that religious discrimination will be removed from the public sector of the labour market. This “reform” might ensure that when two unemployed workers seek one job, one of them will be discriminated against on grounds other than religion.


And the most ludicrous of all the “Civil Rights” demands: abolition of second-class citizenship! O pious ghosts of yesterday! What did they mean? Did they mean that the working class would have the same freedom from poverty, the same standard of living, homes, education and holidays as are enjoyed by he owning class in our society? Of course they didn’t! It was typical of the empty and ill-considered ideas of the civil rights leadership and indicative of the abounding political ignorance of those who followed them that they should have paid lip-service to such absurdity. To suggest that all could have equal freedom, equal opportunity, equal citizenship in a society in which a small minority class own and control the means whereby the rest of us live, and to bring workers into the streets and into conflict on the basis of such a “demand” is not simple stupidity, it is political madness!


To Unionism in its entirety, the whole rotten set-up, its politicians, its “respectable” businessmen, its church leaders, its judges, magistrates, spies—every bit of its foul apparatus, forged with calculated cunning to protect the economic interests of the exploiting class in Northern Ireland—to this crew, severally and severely, must go the discredit and blame for the foulness that is bigotry in Ulster. They built the bomb!


To the “Civil Rights” leaders, including the Trotskyites and “Lefties” who were merely playing the “entryist” tactic, whose ignorance of the nature and purpose of Unionism’s bomb, whose failure to understand either that bigotry was simply a device for confusing and exploiting all workers and that Unionism was simply capitalism dressed in the costume of local requirement or that only Socialism and the complete abolition of capitalism could ensure “civil rights” for the working class, must go the discredit and blame for igniting the bomb.


Meanwhile the working class have died . . . the arsonist has done his work . . . the Catholic and Protestant magistrates impose their mandatory cruelties without concern for the fact that the same system that made them and which they exist to protect created the material of their labours. Outside, in the arena, the slaves clamour for each other’s blood. Thus, freshly reformed! capitalism in Ulster, 1970.


Richard Montague