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the prisons, a number of them had achieved the greater anonymity of the cemetery, and many more, blinded or maimed, had withdrawn from the scene.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”!