1970s >> 1971 >> no-804-august-1971

Northern Ireland’s World of Violence

Recently Prime Minister Faulkner, whose outstanding ability is the art of double-talk, told us that the “terrorists” — by which he means those thugs, gunmen and murderers who do not support him — were as good as defeated and he was confident that Northern Ireland would soon return to that condition which for decades Faulkner and his political ilk were pleased to regard as normal. Like all skilful liars, Faulkner, as always, made qualifications sufficient to permit retreat, or even a complete volte-face, if the situation required it.

While we wish no victories to Faulkner or the economic interests he represents, such have been the events of the last few weeks in Belfast, and such the futility of its purpose, that we wish he had been right. We have seen the most senseless acts of violence and depravity on all sides in an orgy of blood-letting, fatal and otherwise, and we have lived with the foulest hypocrisy of selective condemnation on all sides — hypocrisy that is as aggressive, vicious and futile as the activities it condemns.


Let’s look at the apologetics of violence. If we take the militant Republican hypocrisy first it is simply because it generally receives less prominence than that of its opponents. The IRA claims to have a mandate from the Irish people, given at the last all-Ireland elections held in 1918, to act on behalf of those people and to secure that British rule is banished from the entire island; such a mandate, they claim, gives them the executive authority to carry on the functions of government, including the waging of war, if so required. The democratically-expressed will of the Irish people was, they say, frustrated in 1918 by the violence of Britain and the intransigence of the northern Unionists and the resultant partition of the country denied the people as a whole the opportunity of further democratic decision.

They claim, and rightly so, that the people who introduced the gun into Irish politics in the present century were the Northern Ireland Unionists who organised a private political army to frustrate, if necessary by violence, not only the democratically-expressed wishes of the Irish people, but, also, the will of the British parliament and that, having by threats of violence denied to the majority on both islands their democratic options, the Unionist Party opted for dismemberment of the country in such a way as would ensure for them, in the area under their control, a permanent built-in political majority which they continued to maintain by policies of the grossest religious bigotry and economic sanctions against their minority.

Such a summation is factual enough: it is true that those respectable elements who hold their hands to their pious mouths in holy horror at the present wave of terrorism are largely associated with, or sympathetic to, a party and a government that exists only through the arrogation of a claim to exercise violence to frustrate the majority in Britain and Ireland and it is also true that a half-century of Unionist rule has done nothing to win opponents to its cause. But the IRA (and we refer specially to the “official” IRA and not the nihilistic “Provisionals”) are being conveniently pedantic when they make the claim that since there has been no electoral decision of the people of all-Ireland — that is, in an election involving the whole country — since 1918 they are the inheritors of that year’s political decisions or that the dead of 1918 have a right to speak for the living of 1971.

Especially is it nonsense for the IRA to suggest that, while the will of the country in 1918 should be accepted as constant, they have the right to abandon the conservative nationalist economic philosophy of Sinn Fein, which earned the electoral victory of 1918, in favour of the up dated chauvinism of their present national state capitalist philosophy.

It is a fact of political life in Ireland, as tragic for us who are Socialists as for the IRA, that the overwhelming majority of the working class support Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Unionist Party. Such support as the IRA do receive is from a small minority and this has been demonstrated time and again at election contests North and South of the Border. The IRA claim to executive authority died with the establishment of the Irish Free State and such actions as it has taken thereafter can claim no justification in the democratic principles the movement pays lip-service to.

As Socialists we recognise what passes for democracy in capitalism simply as a weapon useful to a Socialist-conscious working class in the establishment of Socialism; as a political condition which, from a working class standpoint, is superior to its alternatives insofar as it permits of the organisation of our class for the democratic conquest of political power and the abolition of government of people and establishment of a democratic system of such administrative controls as are required to secure the material basis of a full and happy life for all. We have no “moral” standpoint on the question — we don’t consider, for example that a British soldier, invested with the support of millions has any more “right” to use arms in the service of capitalism than has an IRA man supported by a few thousand people. Our political “morality” is based, like all political “morality”, on the needs of our class and if we reject the idea of minority violence, or violence at all, it is simply because our Socialist objective can only be achieved by the conscious act of a majority of Socialists.

In claiming, falsely, an inherited democratic right for their activities the IRA show a peculiar and convenient nodding acceptance of a political principle which, if they accepted its implications, would ring the curtain on their foolhardy military adventurism.

What is more to the point than the source from which the IRA claims to derive its authority for its activities is the effect of those activities on the working class. Put simply, and we put it thus to the IRA and its supporters, the questions is: have any of your activities, at any time, proved, in any way, beneficial to working class interests or brought them nearer an appreciation of the fact that their miseries are the result of capitalism, a world system based on the exploitation of the working class or an understanding of the Socialist alternative to capitalism’s world system of exploitation?

Of course they haven’t! The killings and counter-killings, the executions, the jailings, the trials and the rest of the chronicle of violence and death, past, present and future, has been based on the fiction that national sovereignty solves working class problems; based on the ignorance that the nation state — historically a device of capitalism — is a “holy” and a “wholesome” thing and that a subject class should invest its blood in the struggle to change its masters.

Latterly, of course, the IRA has gone back to, and, indeed, beyond, the old Constitution and Governmental Programme of the Irish Republic with its requirement for national agricultural, industrial and fishery cooperatives, and have claimed that their objective is a “Socialist Workers’ Republic”. We have dealt at length in previous issues of the SOCIALIST STANDARD with this impractical contradiction in-terms which is simply a working-class-deceiving euphemism for capitalism organised directly under the State. Not only have we shown the fallacious reasoning behind the notion that a single country can, through State ownership, organise the capitalist mode of production, with its market economy and wages system, in such a way as to eliminate the inherent contradictions of capitalism, contradictions which inevitably mean poverty and insecurity, expressed in their many forms, for those who remain in wage bondage, but we have also drawn attention to the despotic nature of government in such conditions.

Is this the end which the IRA feel justifies their means? Is this why working men should die or spend years of their lives in prison? Is this why working men who fall foul of the anger of the IRA for such things as “civil crime” should be beaten, kicked, tarred-and-feathered or shot — indeed, in this latter connection, is it not peculiar that an organisation claiming to be Socialist should wreak such brutality on the oppressed of capitalism who yield to the stimulation of the system in transgressing its rules?


The “Provisional” IRA are simply a Catholic counterpart of the political Protestant UVF. Their bombings and murders are no more despicable than the brutalities of their enemies but their role in such areas of Belfast as where they are, to quote their white-washed wall claims, “in control”, is particularly vicious.

Not renowned for their skill in political argument they brook no interference from any quarter weaker than their own and to oppose them, even with the weaponry of political argument is to invite intimidation or worse. Unlike the “official” IRA, which, to its credit, refuses to become involved in religious rioting, the words Catholic and Protestant figures prominently in the vocabulary of the “Provisional” as synonyms for “them” and “us”.

The appalling ignorance, or, if we are less charitable, the barbarous strategy, of this section of militant Republicanism has been responsible for many of the horrific street confrontations between Catholics and Protestants and Catholics and British military, confrontations which reflects no credit on any of the combatants.

The Provisional IRA can see — and it is easily seen — the viciousness of the young workers who have been gulled into the service of capitalism in the British Army but they are totally blind to the viciousness and degradation of their own violence because they too have been gulled into the service of the same worthless cause, even if they do prefer their capitalism with green, white and orange wrapping.

Politically we are wholly opposed to the “official” IRA. As workers and Socialists we dispute both their end, State Capitalism, and their means, Violence; we would say that historically and presently their end and means have driven them on a course which leaves little room to condemn viciousness in their enemies. We would be less than honest, however, if we did not acknowledge the restraint they have exercised in many of the brutal street confrontations that have been promoted by the vicious reciprocity of their erstwhile comrades of the Provisional movement and of the so-called Security Forces.

We can analyse and explain the circumstances leading to the emergence of the Provisional but the fact that we understand what they are, and why they are, a malevolent political cocktail of ignorance and bigotry precipitously decanted by the burnings and murders inflicted by political Protestants and the police forces on the Catholics in August 1969 does not alter the fact, like the UVF, they are one of the staunchest pillars of vicious reaction that opposes working class reconciliation and Socialist understanding in Northern Ireland today.


We have always pointed out that the Unionist Party’s strategy in maintaining political control was to officially disclaim policies of religious discrimination and yet give sufficient evidence of discrimination to lull Protestant workers into the belief that they were the favoured children of Unionism. It is a despicable strategy but one that has paid rich dividends to a party whose purpose was the preserving of political conditions favourable to the economic interests of the capitalists they served. Of course evidence can be adduced to show that some working class lackeys of Unionism were rewarded with a house or a job — but the reward itself demonstrates the poverty of its recipients.

The fact is that Unionism made war on the working class without discrimination and it is no accident that the areas of most constant sectarian conflict differ only in the type of slogans they have white-washed on their gable walls.

It was only in the early sixties, when economic changes, and impending economic changes, caused the Unionist Party to adopt new methods for the same old purpose — the class interests of our masters — that some “liberalising” of official attitudes emerged. These changes not only brought political Catholicism forward with a determination never again to retreat but also enabled ambitious would-be politicians to pick up from the gutters of traditional Unionism the trusty devices for forging a career — foul bigotry, lies and bully-boy tactics.

The success of some of these would-be politicians is now a fact (and the failure of some others may explain some of our mysterious bombings!) and their course to political stardom is the story of our present violence. The chapters of that story are: the nurturing of the nonsense amongst the most down-trodden section of the Protestant working class that their “way-of-life” — their poverty and slums! — was somehow threatened by the government’s new under-emphasis on religious bigotry; the organising of Catholic workers in the Civil Rights Movement to achieve “rights” which their leaders alleged Protestants had (presumably including that majority of Protestants who, like their Catholic class brethren, knew only poverty and slum-dom); the Government’s cowardly re-adjustment of attitudes to counter the loss of support to Paisleyism and the inevitable conflagration of 1969.

Among the hate weapons developed by those elements eager to supplant the government was the UVF an armed and secret force taking its name from the force developed by Unionism to over-ride the democratic decisions of the people of Britain and Ireland in 1912. The fact that little is known about the present-day version of this tool of political thuggery is not so much a tribute to its ability to maintain secrecy as it is a pointer to its lack of organised existence. Proscribed by the government after a number of Catholics had been foully murdered in such a way as not to allow the murderers even a pretext beyond the fact of the victims’ religious identity, the UVF developed a “front” organisation which remains legal and more careful than the earlier force. The acts of violence generally attributed to the UVF are usually carried out by people associated with one or more loose groupings of extreme political Protestants and such groupings are, tragically, not rare in the Protestant ghettos.

It is from people associated with such groups, which are the real sinews and support of the UVF, that the most vociferous protests at the violence of the IRA groups comes. They are shocked; they despair of words fitting their condemnation and they are hypocritically forgetful of the violence and murder which the organisations they support have carried out against Catholics and even, on a number of occasions, against the police and British Army.

Typical of such hypocritical protest is the Orange Order and perhaps the most nauseously hypocritical of its spokesmen is the political Protestant Rev. Martin Smyth. Like the Prime Minister and the police chiefs, like Paisley and the thousands of eminently respectable, and pre-eminently ignorant, people whose convenient political memories and selective condemnations is often a bigoted bludgeon, Smyth appears to forget that, in taking to arms, the IRA are only imitating the earlier and more successful example of Unionism and in bombing and killing they are only emulating the activities which Smyth and his hypocritical ilk forgot to condemn when the victims were Catholic and the perpetrators Orangemen. We have no record of Smyth, the indignant and the righteous Rev. Smyth, publicly protesting when one. of his Orange Lodges delayed the serious business of remembering 1690 in 1969 by paying a silent tribute outside Belfast jail to one of its members who was convicted of murdering one man and wounding two others simply because they were Catholics.

Then there are the Orange politicians who have witnessed and testified to the brutality of the British Army when they have been fighting with Protestants; most often they are the first to decry the validity of evidence of similar brutality when the Army has been in action against Catholics.


There is the third force in our violence and hypocrisy, the British Army. One would think that men who have voluntarily become full-time members of an organisation that trains them not only to kill but requires that they surrender all right to question the identity of their victims, are not likely to become involved with protest against those of like mind who oppose them. Still we regularly get old Major Neverthink on our TV screens now protesting the military cricket of the “cowardly bounders” who use dirty methods, like amateur imitations of Army Claymore anti-personnel bombs, against his troops.

We were of the opinion that in military parlance the surprise attack and hasty retreat was simply good strategy; the development of new weapons was inventiveness and, when such weapons were produced from easy-to-hand materials, this was good improvisation but possibly our misapprehension arises from the time the French partisans were fighting the Germans or, more recently, when the brave Hungarians or Czechs were fighting the machine gun-toting Russians. Our British Army’s Major Neverthink in Northern Ireland thinks the “terrorists” are short on guts if they don’t advise the military of their intentions before bringing out their Webleys to face the Army’s tanks and machine guns!

Aside from the babbling selective condemnations of British Army officers there is the much more serious political and practical blindness of the military command. From abusive threats of kicking teeth in to arrest for motorists who refuse to sign statements saying they have no complaints about Army behaviour (!) to the quite clear cut instances of hate-incensed troops provoking riots by indiscriminate and largely futile house raidings confined almost entirely to Catholic districts; from their constant provocation by blanket presence in the narrow streets of Belfast’s slum-dom along with heavy and noisy equipment to the imposition of indignities on the civilian populace in those areas and the greater viciousness that their equipment gives them as one of the sides in street rioting, the Army demonstrates that they are either a foul machine at the easy disposal of brutal politicians or that its leadership is wholly irresponsible.

Failure elsewhere — and it must be remembered that the tactics being used by the British Army in N. Ireland today are those that brought them discredit and even military failure in all the areas where they have served the cause of capitalist “law and order” — and they can serve no other cause — seems to have taught the Army no lessons nor do they appear to grasp the elementary fact that every raid, and its attendant situation, carried out in the pathetic slums of Northern Ireland, even if it yields a firearm, creates new desires for firearms and many new hands to use them. But then the soldier is on orders despite Nuremberg and its lofty legal precedents, “their’s not to reason why”.

There is nothing new in the world of violence. After Belsen, Churchill’s policy of mass bombing of civilians, Hiroshima, Hungary, Vietnam and all the other foulness that the profit system and its political priorities have given rise to, capitalism’s chamber of horrors can hold no new surprises. Only the hypocrisy of selective condemnation, of blaming the “other side” can continue to surprise and when such selective condemnation is as general and arrogant as it is in Northern Ireland today, where it is patently the seed of fresh conflict, surprise is a prelude to nausea.

We too condemn: not just either of the two IRA’s or the UVF, not just the government or “security” forces, not just the rioters, Catholic and Protestant. We condemn the system of social organisation that creates conditions in which it can all happen — a system where it must always be “You or I” and rarely “You and I”.

There is an answer, a simple answer — complicated for the working class by the same mad social conditioning that allows them to babble idiocies about violence, that answer is Socialism; the establishment of a society of production for use, a society where the resources of nature and the mental and physical skills of people will combine, not to produce things for sale and profit, but to produce an abundance of the things we require sufficient to permit of free and equal access to our needs. Only in such a society will the material basis of division and dissension, that in Northern Ireland as in so many other areas of capitalism has erupted into open violence, be finally banished.

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