1970s >> 1971 >> no-806-october-1971

Northern Ireland After Internment

It started on Saturday morning the 7 August, though the scene was being set with progressively accelerating vigour over the weeks and even months before then and, unknown even to his cabinet, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister had returned from London the previous week, after discussions with his political principals, with a package of political dynamite that was to be precipitously cast on the flames of Saturday’s events and create the terror of what has already become known as “Bloody Monday” — or even, according to some, the date of commencement of the Irish Civil War.

Saturday morning commenced with the British Army’s killing of a young man whose car had back-fired as he passed a military post. The killing was carried out while the young man sat in a stationary motor van at traffic lights. The moronic heroes of this latest chapter of growing military homicide issued a series of conflicting reports that did nothing to placate the growing riotous reaction and when, in the afternoon of the same day, the dead man’s workmate, who had been with him in the van, was released from a police station showing on his face and body the grim marks of brutality inflicted by the military and police — attended, of course, by another casual and callous army statement to “look into the matter” another chapter of violence was opened.

Within forty-eight hours the British Military Governor, General Tuzo, unleashed his “security forces” into the Catholic slums to apprehend and intern, without evidence or trial, people whom, for one reason or another, had earned the hatred of the political gangsters running the Northern Ireland statelet. It would be easy to believe that some of those arrested were IRA activists; some were simply members of the Civil Rights Movement and spokesmen for the ghetto Catholics while others were members of the Peoples’ Democracy — a “left-wing” political group whose spokesmen, including some of those arrested, have repeatedly pledged themselves to non-violent action and, indeed, have many times taken issue with the militant Republicans on the question of violence.

The move to intern without trial, involving all the old devices of beating and terror plus a few of the more recent sophisticated ploys developed by the Americans in Vietnam, was obviously aimed not simply at the IRA but at all opposition groups in Northern Ireland. The openly brutal methods of arrest and torture were calculated not only to “punish” those arrested but to terrify those who were not and no one who has subsequently visited the areas where the terror was carried out, and watched and listened to the officer-encouraged arrogance of the soldiers can be left in much doubt that the military have been instructed to see that “law and order” is enforced, if necessary with the boot, the club, the torture chamber and the bullet.

“Bloody Monday” commenced a week that will become a historical milestone in Northern Irish affairs. To those doubting the character of the man, it revealed Brian Faulkner as a power-maniac prepared to unleash the most terrible violence and murder in order to placate the Brutus’s of his own party so that he would not follow the inglorious Caesars of the last two years. It gave evidence sufficient to indict the British Army’s “supremo”, General Tuzo, and his command of many of the vilenesses that occupied and still does, the War Crimes Commission. It exposed the military baloney of the IRA. It showed the hierarchy of the Protestant churches defending the most vicious assaults on their Catholic neighbours — while the Catholic cardinal blethered innocuously! Politically it broke any last hope that Northern Ireland might, some time in the future, be capable of civil government by the Unionists. Finally, and most importantly, it wrote a lesson for the working class; it said “Stop! Look! Think!”

The situation lends itself to the heady patriotic prose that is the stock-in-trade of revolutionary romantics; it creates the background for vitriolic bitterness and dreams of revenge; in its intricacies, it is food for the analytical journalists and “experts”; in its totality it is sadness, tragedy and despair for the working class who are again called upon to offer their dead, their slums, their days of wretched living, for the cause of a Unionist Ulster or a United Ireland.

The question “Why” must not be asked — even of our fellow members of the working class. It is a treason easily adduced from the ravage and conflict by either ’‘side” of the politico-religious divide. Only the struggle, the bitterness, the prayers for revenge are relevant! ‘‘A Fenian burnt out . . .!” ‘‘A fucking soldier got it! ” . . . “We knocked the shit out of them!” But Why? Why? Why? . . . Always the same group answers: “We were burnt out!” . . . “The bastards shot one of our chaps!” . . . “They knocked the shit out of us!”

If we were preaching religion we should perhaps say, and maybe with less inhibition than those preaching religion, “Look, we all have this in common . . .” and use the rhetoric of Shylock to prove that misery, grief and tears, like happiness, love and joy are common to all men — but that has been said from a million pulpits to a thousand wars and there is no record of it ever having retarded the armament industry.

If we were mere politicians we should promise a wholly subdued Unionist Ulster or, perhaps, an “Ulster” where the unionist is written with a small “u” and administration undertaken by a political concoction of orange and green, or, again, we might offer you an “Ulster that is a Province in a ‘Workers’ Republic’, “where the State became the principal employer — but these schemes, like the prayers, have all been tried, here or elsewhere, by myriad politicians in a hundred states and there is no evidence of any of them ending poverty, slumdom, insecurity and violence.

So let’s look again at the Northern Ireland problem. Let’s see if we could wave a magic political wand and bring about conditions in which our particular problem of violence would not exist. Better still, let’s examine the social topography, so to speak, of violence; see where we find it and, equally important, where we don’t find it.

Where are the richest recruiting areas of the battalions of IRA, UVF, Paisleyite militants, etc? Not Belfast’s Malone Road, to be sure! Not even the comfortable semi-“D’s” of better-off workers with above-average wages and a modicum of job security. To be sure, they may be affected with the current hatreds but their bigotries, like their family scandals, are rarely publicly displayed. Like the master class, who they ape, they don’t put out flags or bunting to commemorate some garbled version of history. Theirs might be some indefinite pandering to some shade of orange or green but it comes low in their order of priorities; below “getting on”, having the kids “educated” or the garden tidy. It might reach the level of the Protestant Telegraph or the United Irishman but only in the concealment of the Newsletter or The Irish Times. Never does it achieve a vigour that necessitates the rumble of armoured cars and raucousness of ill-kempt soldiery.

The “extremists” come from the slums; from the back-to-back houses of the Falls, the Shankill, Ballymacarrett and all the other areas of miserable existence whose names have become “Hill 60’s” in the present struggle. They come, too, from the estates of “working class dwellings” where food, clothing and peace of mind are mortgaged for the frugal comforts of electric heaters, Great Universal shoddiness and Woolworth culture. And they come from the small farms where the age-old problems of bare existence are accentuated by the progress of agricultural capitalism.

These are the addresses of the political “extremists”, the felons, the internees and the rioters. This is the geography of misery where live and die, the victims of a rottenness that now condemns them.

While Unionism can be blamed for facilitating the easy identification of capitalism’s problems with religious bigotry, it certainly can not be blamed for the fact that, like all the other political parties throughout the world, it has failed to eliminate, or even make tolerable, the basic poverty features of the system and, in the Northern Ireland context, provide the social and economic conditions conducive to peace and community harmony. Given the fact that the system of social organisation operating in Northern Ireland is capitalism, and allowing for the competitive disadvantages of local geography and lack of indigenous raw materials, the record of the Unionist Party was as good, or as bad, as most other parties operating capitalism elsewhere and certainly no worse than the “Republican” capitalism of the south of Ireland.

The big question now is, what is to be done? Obviously British capitalism, already subsidising Unionism to the tune of some £200 million annually, will not be prepared to increase that subsidy with the presence of thousands of troops indefinitely and, with the mounting casualties among British servicemen, an already-unpopular British government must fear the back-lash of British public opinion. Again, local capitalism, an immediate casualty of the conflict, is becoming increasingly anxious for peace.

Sooner or later the politicians will get around the table to work out a “political solution”; yesterday’s angry words will be forgotten, today’s “unacceptable” will become “reasonable compromises”, undertakings will be given and received, smiling photographs will be taken, peace will be restored and the workers will go back to work or to the dole.

If it stops murder, arson and intimidation it will, of course be good and the politicians will not be slow to take credit for ending what they, and the system they serve, began. But beyond that, as far as the working class are concerned, what will it all mean?

Only the establishment of a society in which the productive resources are owned in common by all and harnessed to the function of producing an abundance of the material requirements of a full and happy life for all, will eliminate finally and for ever the material basis of conflict and social discontent among people. Essentially, such a condition must be world-wide but the promotion of its need among the working class in Northern Ireland now reveals the hollowness of those conflicts to which workers presently lend themselves and speeds the day of its universal application.

The “practical” men of politics will, of course, say “It doesn’t do anything about the situation we now find ourselves in”. Such “practical” men have always been looking for a quick patch-up answer to rescue us from the repetitive problems of capitalism and capitalism keeps them constantly supplied with problems requiring “immediate” solutions! In Northern Ireland it is painfully obvious — and this is sometimes alleged by enemies of Unionism and sometimes offered as an excuse by Unionism — that it is the shortcomings of the system, and the system is capitalism, — the poverty, slums, joblessness, etc. — that forms the basis of friction and fratricidal strife. The actuality of violence, on the other hand, is provided by the programmes and schemes of the “practical” men with ideas for planning capitalism — and capitalism is production for the market and the wages and money systems whether ownership is vested in individuals or the national state — in such a way as will make that system run contrary to its nature.

To such “practical” men we have nothing to say; we would not attempt to tempt them away from the reality or the promise of privilege and political office with a vision of a world where the “Northern Ireland Problem” could not exist. To the working class we say: the schemes of the politicians and the generals, real and imagined, are irrelevant; they contain nothing new; they are but the old failed notion that capitalism administered by the “right” people can function in the interests of all — each, of course in “his station” — or the newer, but equally failed, notion that capitalism, despite its production for profit motive, its wages exploitation and money trick, can be tolerable under the direct aegis of the national State.

Richard Montague

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