1970s >> 1979 >> no-894-february-1979

Labour’s role in Northern Ireland

Immigrant Irish workers played no small part in the formation of the British Labour Party in 1906. Labour was hope; hope for the future in the land of their adoption; hope, too, for their loved ones, back on the ‘oul sod’. Was not Labour a party of principle? Did not its spokesmen, especially when canvassing the ‘Irish vote’, speak emotionally of the ‘ancient wrongs’ and promise ‘freedom and friendship’ to Ireland?

In the years since 1906, the Labour Party has become a political obscenity that has jettisoned all the lofty principles that attended its birth. Those ‘principles’, begotten of ignorance of the nature of capitalism and the crassest political opportunism, have failed to fight even a rear guard action against the forces Labour claimed it could overwhelm and vanquish. Ironically, the excuses for Labour’s failures, for its total abandonment of principle, are logical only in terms of its continued existence; given its basic premise—that capitalism can operate in the interests of its exploited class—adherence to principle would have cost it its life.

To use the parlance of capitalism, there is no crime against the workers that Labour has not committed; indeed, because of its unholy alliance with the unions, it has often proved a more successful instrument against working class interests than have the Tories. Strike-breaking, racism, assaults on working-class living standards, propping up foreign dictatorships, military murder of defenceless peoples, nuclear weapon proliferation, presiding over poverty, homelessness and unemployment and taking active steps in the interests of the propertied class to extend these miseries. These are some of the crimes of the British Labour Party.

This is the other face of Callaghan, the plump, stooping ‘father figure’, the disgusting paragon of capitalist respectability who pokes gentle jibes at his stage-managed counterpart on the ‘opposition’ benches to the accompaniment of the moronic caterwauling of ‘the House’.

That the Tories are even worse that Labour appears to be the prevailing attitude among the ‘Irish Vote’ in Britain and of the majority of workers in Ireland. No intelligent defence of Labour is offered but, ‘on the Irish Question . . .’ a more sympathetic understanding from the Labour Party than from the Tories is expected. After all, did not the Tories, callously exploit the ‘Irish Question’ and the ‘Orange Card’ to suit their political fortunes? Are they not the true architects of the situation now being paid for with working class lives in Ireland? Might they not, if they came to power, give the governorship role to the dreaded Airey Neave whose ignorant vapourings and sanguine aspirations threaten the Province with lakes of blood? On the other hand, didn’t Harold and Jim and many of their political ilk make speeches and write books acknowledging Britain’s part in the Irish tragedy and holding out the promise of unity and reconciliation?

Contrary to its alleged principles, however, Labour has over the last ten years used the full measure of its governmental authority to enact viciously repressive legislation. aimed at the most impoverished section of the working class in Northern Ireland. It has filled the jails with people who have ‘confessed’ to State torturers, allowed sporting military gentlemen to bludgeon or kill without fear of legal constraint and, finally, set in train the armament of the majority side in the conflict.

After Belsen, Dresden. Hiroshima, Vietnam and all the other horrors of capitalism it is a contemptuous hypocrisy on the part of those who accept this system to condemn the Provisional IRA for using violence. Indeed, were it not so disgusting, the sight of Roy Mason, Labour’s Gauleiter in Northern Ireland, condemning the viciousness of the IRA, would be comic. Mason’s last job was associated with preparations for the destruction of life and property with weapons that make those of the IRA look like toys.

Mason and his fraternity respond to criticism of military murder, torture and violence against the person by the forces of State thuggery, with the argument that those concerned or appalled by such practices are giving aid and comfort to terrorists. It was an argument used by some of those who were charged at Nuremberg in 1946 with ‘crimes against humanity’.

Throughout all its periods of office, the Labour Party countenanced, assisted and, in 1949, reinforced the despotic authority of Ulster Unionism. Only in 1968, when British capitalism’s investment in Northern Ireland was placed in jeopardy and the stench of events here was getting a bit much for the sensitive political nostrils of the ‘free world’, did British Labour act.

It sent in the British Army, literally to hold the fort against the downtrodden who, in a backlash of anger, threatened the future of the politicians with whom Labour had always had ‘amicable’ relations. After the Army, Callaghan, the ‘Irish expert’ arrived and offered the populace his wisdom and expertise: everybody should stop fighting because we were really such a marvellous people and, besides, we knew it made sense!

 

Subsequently, through Labour pressure to create the illusion of change, the guns were temporarily removed from the largely politically-Protestant police force and the exclusively Protestant ‘B‘ Specials were disbanded. But Ulster Unionism was going to be defended by a fitter and more efficient groups of gunslingers; Callaghan announced the establishment of a new, locally based and recruited. regiment to be known as the Ulster Defence Regiment and, also, established a reserve for the infamous Royal Ulster Constabulary. Both—one by association and the other in its choice of name and intention—were immediately anathema to the non-unionist population and, predictably, became almost exclusively Protestant in their membership. It did not require the ‘expertise’ of a Callaghan to appreciate that this would happen, nor to realise that, in the political climate of the times, both organisations would attract the type of recruits that would distinguish themselves in the practice of bigotry—and worse.

 

Labour was, of course, only doing what is required of those who offer their services to capitalism. But even with their considerable experience of slopping up capitalism’s messes, the task of backing up the oldest of Europe’s repressive regimes could hardly have been conducive to untroubled sleep. True, Labour only laid the foundations of the new phase of Irish troubles before they were kicked out of office in 1970. The Tories, who replaced them, allowed murder and torture and. finally, took over the management of the whole show. In many respects the thuggery of the Tories was carried on with a little less hypocrisy than Labour had shown, and certainly Whitelaw seemed to enjoy the function of Gauleiter less than the present Labour incumbent.

 

The Labour Party’s ‘conscience’ must be a very sick joke, to those members of the working class in Northern Ireland who find themselves interned, beaten senseless or made to ‘confess’ to murder or other terrorist offences. Or to those who have their homes broken up and their relatives arrested for hours or days, TWO OR THREE TIMES EVERY WEEK, and even summarily executed by ‘‘security forces” whose assertion that their victims were ‘gunmen’ often proves so untenable that the State eventually pays ‘conscience’ money to the next-of-kin— even if it never manages to identify and punish the murderers.

 

Richard Montague (Belfast)